Tesla Model 3, Audi e-tron get top marks in crash tests

Visitors look at a Tesla Model 3 during a press preview of the Seoul Motor Show in Goyang, northwest of Seoul, on March 28, 2019.

Jung Yeon-Je | AFP | Getty Images

New crash tests show the Tesla Model 3 and the Audi e-tron, are among the safest models out on the road.

The results bolster the theory electric vehicles may be better designed to protect passengers in crashes than internal combustion vehicles. The head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is not quite ready to reach that conclusion.

“I wouldn’t say that electric vehicles are inherently safer,” said David Zuby, Chief Research Officer for the IIHS.

“The fact that an electric vehicle has generally smaller motors than an internal combustion engine and the fact that the battery can be placed in in a variety of places, maybe with more flexibility than a gas tank, does provide the potential to make electric vehicles safer, or at least as safe if not safer than traditional vehicles,” he said.

The series of crash tests conducted by the IIHS measured how well three electric vehicles and one hydrogen fuel cell vehicle protect drivers and passengers in a variety of collisions.

The results: the Tesla Model 3, Audi e-tron and Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, qualified for the best rating possible, Top Safety Pick +.

The Chevrolet Bolt, a small electric car, earned a rating of “good” in all but one crash test, but did not receive the designation of Top Safety Pick.

Why? The Bolt’s headlights failed to meet IIHS safety standards.

“In our headlight testing we saw too much glare for oncoming drivers,” said Zuby. “Although the headlights are putting out good light for the driver of the Bolt, there is a concern it may cause safety problems for oncoming drivers.”

When asked about the IIHS results, General Motors spokesman Chad Lyons said, “The headlights meet or exceed all lighting-related federal motor vehicle safety standards, as well as standards from the Society of Automotive Engineers.”

For Tesla, this is the first time one of its vehicles has earned a safety award from the IIHS. It’s a bit of vindication for the company after it was told by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to stop making misleading statements about the Model 3’s safety rating.

In late 2018, the Model 3 earned a five-star safety rating with NHTSA. Tesla posted a blog about the results and wrote, “NHTSA’s tests also show that it has the lowest probability of injury of all cars the safety agency has ever tested.”

However, Tesla based these claims on its own analysis, and NHTSA never made the same assertions about the Model 3.

NHTSA sent Tesla CEO Elon Musk a cease-and-desist letter and referred the matter to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

These are not the first crash tests the IIHS has conducted on full electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.

After putting cars and SUV’s with large battery packs through a series of collisions, Zuby and his team are no more concerned about battery fires than they are about gasoline fires erupting after internal combustion engine vehicles are in crashes.

“Across all of our testing for electric vehicles and plug in hybrids and we find that the battery compartments are pretty well protected,” he said. “We haven’t seen any sign of shorting or any sign that the batteries might catch on fire or lead to some kind of electrocution event following the crash.”

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