The Tesla Model S is a great car in which to be in a crash. Its mostly aluminum structure is very solid. The car is also extremely large, there are not many cars bigger than the Model S. The Model S is also very heavy, there are not many cars heavier than the Model S. Being big, solid, and heavy always helps in a crash, particularly if you are hitting other smaller, lighter, less well built vehicles. However, the Model S cannot qualify for the United States’ highest safety rating, which is the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating (TSP+).
The reason the 2014 Tesla Model S cannot qualify is that it is now about 5 years behind the general automotive industry in active safety. Active safety measures are things like systems that spot an impending crash ahead or behind and then both alert the driver to the coming threat, or goes further. Many vehicles now will automatically brake a car, some to a complete stop using full braking force, if the driver does not, or cannot, react in time. If you think that the cars that do this are expensive European luxury models you are mistaken. In fact, the most highly rated cars in this safety category are actually very affordable family cars.
Tesla’s Model S has not yet been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). There are two main reasons for this. First, the IIHS generally tests more mainstream cars made in higher volumes. However, that reason is starting to become questionable. As Tesla proudly proclaims, it was the highest selling model in its price range in 2013 ($70K to $120K). The IIHS has also tested cars that come close to the Tesla in size, sales volume and price. For example, the IIHS has tested the Audi A6 in the past.
The second reason is that Tesla has not asked for the Model S to be tested. This could be strategic. The Model S did very well on the US government mandated test, the NHTSA test. The NHTSA testing is fine, but it is behind the IIHS in terms of both rigor and sophistication. Tesla likes to proclaim it is the safest car on the road because none of its occupants have been killed in a crash. We very much hope that continues. However, people have been in killed in crashes involving Model S cars. In two separate and widely reported cases, two people in an Accord were killed when a Model S crossed the center line, and in another accident a bicyclist was killed by an out of control Model S that also crossed over into on-coming lanes. Neither would have been prevented by forward collision protection systems, but a lane keeping / lane departure alert may have helped in the second case.
According to the IIHS website summary on how a car earns the TSP+ rating, a car must do three things, two of which are difficult. All cars shooting for the top rating must do well on everything IIHS has historically tested such as roof strength, side impact and frontal overlap crashes. All cars now ace those tests, and Tesla surely would too. However, the Model S would also need to score at least “acceptable” on the small frontal overlap test. This test has tripped up many luxury cars and there is no guarantee the Model S would do well. We suspect it would. Finally, a car is not even considered for the “+” part of the ranking, which separates the wheat from the chaff, unless the car “earns a basic, advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention” to quote the standards from the IIHS site. Tesla has no front prevention system. The top system ever tested was in a Subaru costing about $35,000.
Being in a crash is the end result of driver error and also a failure of many safety systems (active), and the start of the implementation of others (passive). There is little doubt that the Model S is a car with good passive safety and a strong structure. However, automotive safety has moved well beyond just passive safety. Now in its third year of sales, it is time that Tesla source or design safety systems for the Model S that are widely available on cars costing less than half its lowest cost model.