Opinion: How Many Deaths Does Tesla Consider Acceptable?
Back when the Tesla Model S was new, it achieved something almost unthinkable for an upstart carmaker. I’m not talking about bringing a full-size electric sedan to market, and I’m not talking about building a seven-passenger sedan capable of Ferrari-baiting acceleration, either. What I’m talking about is the Tesla Model S’ outstanding 5.4 safety rating from the NHTSA – a score that was so high, it effectively “broke” the organization’s five-star scale.
The question of Tesla safety in the lab seemed to be settled, but – nearly 10 years on – we finally have some real-world data to look at, and the results are not quite what you’d expect from a car with “the highest safety rating of any car ever tested”.
I mean, unless you expected the Model S to have nearly 160x the fatality rate of a Chevy Bolt, anyway.
YES, 160 x
Tesla Deaths bills itself as a record of Tesla accidents that involved a driver, occupant, cyclist, motorcyclist, or pedestrian death, regardless of whether or not the driver was at fault. It’s an extremely comprehensive record, with links to accident reports and even news coverage of particular incidents, where available. And, when you visualize that data, the optics are very, very bad for Tesla.
Data from TeslaDeaths.com
At first glance, the graph is pretty shocking, with Tesla’s EVs generating obituaries at a rate that’s exponentially higher than companies like Nissan or Chevrolet.
When I see something wild like that, I start to look at the data, itself, to see what I can make sense of or poke holes in. In this case, I figured that Tesla sells a lot of cars – like, a lot of cars – so this probably had something to do with there being that many more Tesla plug-in cars on the roads than Nissan LEAFs or Chevy Bolts. Trouble is, the opposite was true.
Take a look at these 2021 “sales vs. death” numbers.CarSalesDeathsTesla Model S5,15540Porsche Taycan5,3670Tesla Model X6,20614Volkswagen ID6,2300Audi e-tron6,8840Nissan Leaf7,7292Ford Mustang Mach-e12,9750Chevrolet Bolt20,2881Tesla Model 351,51087
“Tesla clearly stands out,” writes Davi Ottenheimer of Security Boulevard, who compiled these numbers from IIHS data. “Another way to look at this is the Chevrolet Volt (billed as a small 4-door car) had just 7 deaths total despite a decade ( 2010-2020) of sales totaling 157,125.
In a Nissan LEAF, the fatality rate is 1:3865. In a Tesla Model 3, it’s 1:592. In the bigger Model S? The car with the highest safety rating ever recorded? It’s 1:128.
In some countries, you have a greater risk of dying in a Model S than from COVID-19 … so, like, what’s going on here?
SAFETY RATING vs. SAFETY
The facts are indisputable. More people die in Teslas, per Tesla, than they do in many other cars – electric or otherwise. That seems weird for a number of reasons, sure, but the ones that stand out to me are the company’s stratospheric stock price and that initial 5-star safety rating. Let’s start with the latter, then, shall we?
“Independent testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded the Tesla Model S a 5-star safety rating, not just overall, but in every subcategory without exception,” reads Tesla’s original, 2013 press release. “Approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board. NHTSA does not publish a star rating above 5, however safety levels better than 5 stars are captured in the overall Vehicle Safety Score (VSS) provided to manufacturers, where the Model S achieved a new combined record of 5.4 stars.”
It was a great line, and the press, at least, ate it up.
That wasn’t the only great line that Tesla’s crack PR team came up with, either. Five years later, at the launch of the more mainstream Tesla Model 3, Tesla hyped up its NHTSA testing again – this time with the headline, “Model 3 achieves the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested by NHTSA.”
They even included a graph.
Image courtesy Tesla.
So, how is it that the two cars on the road with the lowest probability of injury have one of the highest mortality rates? I’ll give you a clue, it’s definitely not because of Tesla’s controversial “ Full Self Driving” Beta or Autopilot tech.
“Based on conclusions from completed and ongoing NHTSA investigations as well as expert testimony in court cases pertaining to the specific crashes,” reads Tesla Deaths’ homepage. “The confirmed total is currently ten crashes leading to ten deaths. That said, there are at least seven other incidents in the US alone that the NHTSA investigated according to a FOIA request from Reuters. Our dataset features the seven likely incidents.”
So, it’s (probably) not the autonomous drive features – is the problem the safety rating, itself? After all, it is absolutely possible to game the NHTSA tests by strengthening the chassis at the exact locations hit by the crash tests. You don’t have to take my word for that, though. Take Tesla’s.
“It is possible to game the regulatory testing score to some degree by strengthening a car at the exact locations used by the regulatory testing machines,” reads that same 2013 press release I mentioned. It’s worth noting, though, that Tesla makes this claim in defense of its 5.4 score, following that with, “After verifying through internal testing that the Model S would achieve a NHTSA 5-star rating, Tesla then analyzed the Model S to determine the weakest points in the car and retested at those locations until the car achieved 5 stars no matter how the test equipment was configured.”
So, assuming Tesla’s heart is in the right place and it really did build some really safe cars – something both the NHTSA and the IIHS have said, despite some PR hiccups – and that the self-driving cars aren’t out there whacking potential John Connors left and right, there’s really only one possible reason for all these Tesla deaths, isn’t there?
TESLA DRIVERS ARE ASSHATS
I bought my ’73 Super Beetle right around 2001. It was a fun little car, but that’s not what this story is about. What this story is about, then, is my uncle Ron, who I inherited the VW “bug” from (see what I did there?).
See, Ron told me that VW created the Super Beetle – which is a Type I with MacPherson struts in place of the torsion-bar front suspension – as a response to Ralph Nader’s anti-car classic, Unsafe at Any Speed, which blamed the rear-engine handling dynamics of the Corvair for a number of traffic fatalities. “With that suspension on it,” said Ron, “it’s impossible to flip that car.”
Is it, now?
From that moment on, the ’73 Super was driven like it was rented, then stolen, then sold with a fake VIN, then rented, then stolen again. That car lived so much of its life sideways, it had more lovebugs on the doors than it did the windshield – and, I assure you, you can flip a Super Beetle.
I was younger then, though – not yet a father and definitely a bit of an asshole (more than now, yes). I took “you can’t flip that car” as a challenge back in those days, in the same way that I still take “all you can eat” as a challenge. Now, imagine there’s a whole lot of guys like me. Overgrown children with no regard for the safety of the people around them, willing to endanger themselves and others for a little bit of automotive thrill, and give them a 10-second car.
Next, tell them that 10-second car is safe. Like, OMG it’s SO safe, you guys. It’s so safe that it’s the safest car ever built. Ever!
Sprinkle in a dash of self-righteous environmentalism and you have a recipe for disaster.
I don’t think the cars are the problem, guys. If they were, I imagine that stratospheric stock price I mentioned earlier would be getting gobbled up by payouts in wrongful death claims. No, the problem here isn’t a loose nut, it’s the nut behind the wheel.
That’s my take – but you’re the Best and Brightest. You tell me if you think I figured this one out.
[Lead image: Telsa]
I've been in and around the auto industry since 1997, and have written for a number of well-known outlets like Cleantechnica, the Truth About Cars, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can also find me talking EVs with Matt Teske and Chris DeMorro on the Electrify Expo Podcast, writing about Swedish cars on my Volvo fan site, or chasing my kids around Oak Park.
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