Are Tesla's Self-Proclaimed 'World's Safest Cars' Actually Among The World’s Deadliest?

Submitted by @ElonBachman

If there’s one thing that Elon Musk likes more than pseudoprofundity, it’s superlatives. Small wonder, then, that the company that brought us the Gigafactory, Superchargers, and Ludicrous Mode has had an easy time convincing its fan base that Tesla makes the “safest car on the road”:

Lurkers on Tesla forums can confirm that these safety superlatives are articles of faith among Tesla’s flock, and apparently this faith is shared by Wall Street: Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas recently predicted that Tesla’s Model 3 will be “an order of magnitude” safer than the average car. On May 18, Jonas went even further, claiming that after 7.2 billion miles, Teslas have only been “involved” in five U.S. fatalities.

Wait, what? Observant Twitter users were quick to dispute both Musk and Jonas. Following Jonas’ initial note, pseudonymous poster @ElonBachman crowd-sourced a list over a dozen US fatalities. Jonas was out shortly after with a new note admitting to 15 deaths globally. But the internet doesn’t sleep: as of today, @ElonBachman’s list has grown to include 40 Tesla fatalities globally, including 14 U.S. deaths of Tesla drivers and occupants and a Wile E. Coyote-esque smattering of deaths-by-cliff and deaths-by-swimming-pool. A link to that list, and the sources behind it, is included below the following table:

[link to Google docs here]

What do these numbers mean?

First: they mean that you should not rely on the sell-side for either accuracy or insight. Second: they mean that Musk’s “safest car” claim is bunk. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lists numerous luxury cars in Tesla’s class that have zero recorded fatalities (link here: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/driver-death-rates), which would seem to disqualify the Model S and Model X (we’ll come back to the Model 3 in a minute).

What of Musk’s “4x safer than average” claim? This is tricky because in road safety statistics, as in Princess Bride, there are different kinds of “death.” Luckily, another Musk tweet gives us clues as to how Tesla calculates its deaths:

The NHTSA “fatality” measure that Musk references includes motorcyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians, as well as drivers and occupants. If we exclude occupants of other cars from the table above, then there have been 28 Tesla fatalities globally—that Twitter knows of, anyway. Dividing 7.2 billion miles by 28 deaths gives 257 million miles per death, notably worse than Musk’s claim of 320 million. Perhaps you are inclined to cut Musk some slack; after all, this is still safer than the average car. But the average car is 11 years old, is small, is driven by a younger and less affluent demographic, and lacks the safety features that come on a $100,000 vehicle. Midsize luxury sedans and SUVs in Tesla’s class have death rates far lower than Tesla’s.

Which brings us to the Model 3, Tesla’s “mass market” car offering Kia-level styling starting at $50,000. Although no Model 3 deaths have yet been reported, multiple crashes have (including this one), and of course as of the end of Q1 2018 Tesla had only shipped around 10,000 of them (just somewhat fewer than the 200,000 or so that Musk originally  predicted would be on the road by then).

If a recent Consumer Reports article is any indication (“The Tesla’s stopping distance of 152 feet from 60 mph was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup”), Morgan Stanley may have to update its Tesla fatality figures again soon.