In a recent IIHS test of large sedans, the Model S failed to earn the group’s coveted Top Safety Pick+ award due to low scores in some areas, including an “Acceptable” in the small frontal overlap crash test. Cars must receive the top “Good” score in all categories to earn Top Safety Pick+ status. Out of the group of six cars tested, the Lincoln Continental, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and Toyota Avalon earned the top rating, but the Model S, Chevrolet Impala, and Ford Taurus did not.
Tesla quickly responded. In a statement to Business Insider, a Tesla representative seemed to downplay the value of the IIHS crash tests, saying that the “most objective and accurate independent testing of vehicle safety is currently done by the U.S. government.” The federal government has given both the Model S and Model X high marks in its crash tests.
Other automakers, not to mention car buyers, would probably dispute Tesla’s position, as the IIHS crash tests are generally considered an important safety benchmark. They are also in some ways tougher than the crash tests conducted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The NHTSA does not conduct the small frontal overlap crash test in which the Model S failed to earn a top rating. This test is meant to simulate a collision with the corner of another vehicle, or a fixed object like a tree or utility pole, in which relatively little of the vehicle’s front end can absorb the force of impact. These types of crashes are responsible for an outsize amount of injuries and deaths, according to the IIHS.
In 2016, the Model S earned an “Acceptable” rating in the small frontal overlap test. The main reason behind the low rating was a seatbelt that allowed the crash-test dummy’s torso to move too far forward, allowing its head to strike the steering wheel through the airbag, the IIHS said. Tesla changed the seatbelts on all cars built after January, but the same problem occurred in the 2017 test, the IIHS said. So the rating didn’t change.
The Model S also received a lower rating for structural integrity in the 2017 test than in the previous test. In a crash, the body structure deforms and can get pushed into the passenger space, which the IIHS calls “intrusion.” In the 2017 test, “maximum intrusion increased from less than 2 inches to 11 inches in the lower part [of the driver’s space] and to 5 inches at the instrument panel,” the IIHS said. The Model S was ultimately given an “Acceptable” rating for structural integrity.
In addition, all available headlights on the Model S were rated “Poor,” although Tesla is in good company when it comes to low scores in this area. The IIHS also didn’t rate the Model S for autonomous emergency braking, which is required to earn the “+” in “Top Safety Pick+.” That’s because the software to enable the feature was only recently released for the newest cars.
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