U.S. regulators are scrutinizing a claim made by Tesla last year, which indicated that the new Model 3 sedan is the safest vehicle ever tested, and the electric car manufacturer has received a cease-and-desist letter about making similar Tesla safety claims.
In a series of correspondence posted by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) this week on its website PlainSite, the agency details how Tesla has refused to remove marketing claims that the Model 3 sedan is the safest vehicle ever tested.
In October 2018, Tesla issued a blog post making the claim that the Model 3 sedan has “the lowest probability of injury of all cars the safety agency has ever tested” and that its occupants “have the best chance of avoiding serious injury.”
Just days after Tesla made these claims, the NHTSA issued a statement on October 9, 2018, indicating that the agency does not distinguish safety performance beyond its five-star rating and there is no “safest” vehicle among those who receive a five star rating.
Subsequently, on October 17, 2018, NHTSA officials issued a cease-and-desist letter demanding Tesla remove the “misleading” claim from their blog-post. The letter further stated how Tesla was in violation of the agency’s guidelines for how companies are allowed to convey crash-test data to the public, and that the matter was being raised with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the automakers potentially deceptive marketing practices.
Tesla’s deputy general counsel, Al Prescott, responded to NHTSA’s cease-and-desist letter regarding the Model 3 sedan claim, indicating their statement was based on “actual test results and NHTSA’s own calculations for determining relative risk of injury and probability of injury.”
NHTSA officials claim Tesla violated the established guidelines for how companies are allowed to market and talk about the agency’s crash tests, which include warnings about making statements related to the comparative safety of different types of vehicles among weight classes. These rules are in place to prevent companies from making deceiving claims that may confuse customers into thinking a vehicle is safer than another, which may impact sales of vehicles.
In a NHTSA response to Tesla in October, the agency informed Tesla it was inaccurate to compare overall safety scores of vehicles with different weights, further stating the comparison approach Tesla is using by comparing the Model 3 sedan crash test results to vehicles of different classes is misleading to consumers because of the physics of a car crash. NHTSA detailed that an occupant of a larger, heavier SUV may fare better in a crash than an occupant of a Model 3.
The newly released documents reveal NHTSA officials have sent Tesla six subpoenas since April 2018 related to vehicle crashes, with one of the most recent crash occurring in June. At least three of those crashes have resulted in fatalities to Tesla vehicle drivers.
This is the second time Tesla has dealt with the NHTSA regarding inaccurate vehicle safety claims. In 2013, Tesla claimed the Model S achieved a vehicle safety score equated to a 5.4 out of the 5-Star rating program issued by the NHTSA and IIHS.