Published 12:01 AM EDT Sep 19, 2019
Tesla has won the highest safety honor from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for the first time in the electric vehicle maker’s history.
The Tesla Model 3 earned the 2019 Top Safety Pick+ award from the organization after achieving a “good” performance in all six IIHS crash tests. The compact car also had to perform well in a headlight test and in a test for its frontal-crash prevention systems.
The accomplishment reflects a significant endorsement of Tesla’s safety systems, which CEO Elon Musk has often touted. The Tesla Model S sedan was previously tested and performed well but not quite good enough to get the top honor.
IIHS, an auto nonprofit backed by insurance companies, announced the award Thursday after completing a batch of tests involving electric cars. The Audi e-tron, a competitor to Tesla, was the only other pure-battery-powered car to earn the Top Safety Pick+ award.
The Chevrolet Bolt performed well on the crash tests but fell short of the top IIHS honors because of a “poor” rating on the headlight tests.
Taken together, the results show that electric cars are generally safe to drive.
“You don’t need to trade away safety if you want to choose an electric vehicle,” David Zuby, chief research officer of IIHS, said in an interview. “The automakers are doing well, providing state-of-the-art safety technology in their vehicles.”
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Tesla said in a blog post that the Model 3’s low center of gravity reduces its risk of rolling over, while its “lack of an engine is replaced by a large crumple zone that helps it absorb energy more effectively than a gas car would.” The company also said the vehicle’s glass roof protects passengers during rollover accidents.
For Tesla, the honors come as the company continues to fend off criticism that its Autopilot system promises more self-driving capability than it can deliver. Auto safety advocates say the partially self-driving systems encourage drivers to take their hands off the wheel, but Tesla says drivers are required to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. It is possible, however, to drive the car hands-free for extended periods before the car prompts you to grip the wheel.
Zuby said the IIHS Top Safety Pick+ system does not take into account the performance of Autopilot or any other automaker’s partially self-driving systems. He said the organization is currently developing a test to gauge the effectiveness of such systems, but it’s unclear how that test will factor into safety ratings, if at all.
“Our tests show that the Model 3 is a very safe car,” Zuby said.
Not the safest, though.
Tesla said in a blog post last year that the Model 3 “achieves the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested by” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But NHTSA sent a cease-and-desist letter to Tesla in October 2018, saying the company cannot make that claim.
In August, Tesla cited NHTSA’s test data for frontal, side and rollover crashes and said the company “engineered Model 3 to be the safest car ever built.” In its blog post trumpeting Thursday’s IIHS announcement, Tesla said “we designed it to be among the safest cars ever built.”
In IIHS testing, six non-Tesla 2019 vehicles have achieved better crash test results than the Tesla Model 3, Zuby said.
“I don’t think that our results bear out that it’s the safest car ever,” he said.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.