According to a statement released this week from California-based Tesla Motors, its Model S not only performed well in crash tests from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) but also achieved the “best safety rating of any car ever tested,” with the sedan even outperforming SUVs and minivans that have historically been the highest achievers in NHTSA tests.
In a statement to Online Auto Insurance News (OAIN), the NHTSA said that the agency’s safety ratings program “is designed to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by federal standards.”
The agency did not provide details on the Model S or any testing related to it.
“One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest,” the statement read. “More stars equal safer cars. NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star ratings.”
According to Tesla, the Model S received an overall 5-star safety rating and a 5-star rating in “every subcategory … across the board,” an achievement claimed by only 1 percent of all cars in federal safety tests.
Earlier this year, Consumer Reports awarded the Model S a near-perfect safety rating.
But whether those safety ratings translate into lower insurance costs is uncertain.
Tesla Says Model S Has Safety Benefits Without Gas Engine
As an all-electric vehicle, the Model S is powered by a “battery pack [that] is mounted below the floor pan,” according to Tesla Motors. The lack of a gas engine provides some safety-related advantages to the vehicle model.
Front-end safety is markedly better without the engine block that is under the hood of most gas-powered vehicles. Instead, the Model S uses a motor mounted close to the rear axle and a second trunk in the front space where the typical gas engine might be.
Removing the gas engine means a better “crumple zone,” according to Tesla, giving the Model S more front space in which a vehicle can absorb impact.
“Just like jumping into a pool of water from a tall height, it is better to have the pool be deep and not contain rocks,” the automaker said in a statement.
The lithium-ion battery also aided the Model S in its rollover crash tests, which Tesla said had to be forced into a rollover because it “refused to turn over via the normal methods.”
“The battery pack is mounted below the floor pan, providing a very low center of gravity, which simultaneously ensures exceptional handling and safety,” the company said. In its recent test, Consumer Reports also noted the “rock-bottom center of gravity” that promotes “excellent handling.”
Insurance Industry Awaits Fuller Picture of an ‘Unknown’
With Tesla’s Model S only going to production last year, there’s still a lot in the air for car insurers about its impact on the industry. Even though it performed well in safety tests, that does not guarantee lower claims costs.
Much more is likely needed for the Model S’s claims figures to bear out a determinable average on coverage prices. According to Tesla Motors, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., the automaker has so far delivered more than 15,000 electric cars across the globe.
But that doesn’t mean the Model S’s stellar scores in federal testing isn’t a stirring development for insurers.
“Any time a new car comes out that receives great crash ratings, even better than SUVs, it is exciting in that the safety design and features of the vehicle will protect the driver and passengers within the vehicle,” Tully Lehman, an Insurance Information Network of California (IINC) spokesperson, told OAIN. “This could help reduce injury to drivers and passengers in these particular cars and could result in lower bodily injury claims severity.”
Insurers set rates based on a number of factors and generally prioritize driver-related factors over vehicle-related factors, Lehman said, though the latter does carry weight in final coverage prices. However, different states and insurers apply those factors in countless ways.
According to Lehman, California’s regulatory system uses a policyholder’s driving record, years of licensure and miles driven annually as primary factors, with safety ratings and features being one of many secondary factors.
Electric vehicles like the Model S are still “an unknown” to the California insurance industry, Lehman said, and will have to be on the roads longer for reliable claims trends to be produced on all of those factors.
As it stands, there is an age skew on electric vehicles that could change in the future, according to Lehman.
“Today, some owners of electric vehicles will tend to pay lower insurance premiums because as a group, owners of electric cars will tend to more responsible drivers as
they are more mature,” Lehman said. “But, as more electric vehicles enter the roadways, they may be driven by drivers that are younger and potentially more likely to be involved in an accident of some sort.”
One study, by Mitchell International Inc., indicated that this might already be happening with some electric vehicles. Electric vehicles might also actually end up costing more to insure, according to the report, because repair costs for alternative-fuel vehicles may actually tend to be higher because of higher average repair costs.
Michael Barry, a vice president at the Insurance Information Institute, declined comment on safety tests of the Model S “because different insurers weight certain variable differently,” but said that some discounts on auto insurance exist for “policyholders who use alternative fuels such as electricity.”
(Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson)