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Tesla Model S 5.4-Star Safety Rating Claim Called into Question

2013 Tesla Model S
(Tesla Motors)

Tesla released a statement Monday saying its all-electric Model S set a “new NHTSA vehicle safety score record.” The automaker claims that not only did the Model S earn the highest five-star rating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s front, side and rollover tests, but that it also actually scored higher than five stars overall. “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,” Tesla says in the statement.

NHTSA released its own statement Tuesday explaining that it “does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories. In addition, the agency has guidelines in place for manufacturers and advertising agencies to follow to ensure that accurate and consistent information is conveyed to the public.”

NHTSA cautions automakers and advertisers to refrain from using language that could be deceptive to consumers. “NHTSA strongly discourages the use of potentially misleading words such as ‘perfect,’ ‘safest,’ ‘flawless’ or ‘best in class’ to describe the star rating received by the vehicle.”

ABC News explains, “The five-star rating system that NHTSA uses is based on the likelihood that a driver or passenger will be injured in an accident. NHTSA also provides additional measurements of safety, which according to a Tesla spokesperson, the company combined to produce the 5.4 star rating.”

USA Today echoes that there is no 5.4-star NHTSA rating, and adds that “[Tesla] said it figured that based on the complicated underlying data and calculations that go into the star ratings and are provided to the individual automakers.”

Tesla points out that its Model S sedan is so safe that, in its own testing to confirm NHTSA’s scores, the car broke a test machine that measures roof strength. “Of note, during validation of Model S roof crush protection at an independent commercial facility, the testing machine failed at just above 4 g's. While the exact number is uncertain due to Model S breaking the testing machine, what this means is that at least four additional fully loaded Model S vehicles could be placed on top of an owner's car without the roof caving in.”

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Tesla CEO Elon Musk wrote the bold press release about the Model S’ record safety score. “This release is typical Musk. It’s got a showman’s flair, plenty of bravado, and quite a bit of physics thrown in.”

Do you think Tesla’s 5.4-star overall safety rating claim for its Model S went too far?    

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