The NHTSA Scrutinized Tesla Over Its Safety Claims For The Model 3

The NHTSA Scrutinized Tesla Over Its Safety Claims For The Model 3
  • Newly obtained documents show the NHTSA sent a cease-and-desist letter to Tesla over the company’s safety claims regarding the Model 3.
  • The agency referred comments made in an October 2018 blog post to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • NHTSA subpoenaed records from certain accidents involving Tesla models.

The NHTSA sent a cease-and-desist letter over “misleading statements”.

NHTSA Chief Counsel Johnathan Morrison sent Tesla CEO Elon Musk, a cease-and-desist letter over safety claims for the Model 3 in October 2018, Bloomberg recently reported. The agency mainly focused on an October 7 blog post the company sent out in the same month. In it, Tesla stated the NHTSA found that the Tesla Model 3 had the “lowest probability of injury of any vehicle the safety agency ever tested”.

Nonprofit advocacy site Plainsite published documents Tuesday through a Freedom of Information Act request, showing the exchange between the agency and Tesla. NHTSA took issue with Tesla’s statement when it made the blog post, but the exchange goes deeper than what had been previously covered. What’s more, the agency issued a similar statement back in 2013, when Tesla said the Model 3 had achieved a 5.4 star safety rating. The NHTSA currently does not rate vehicles above 5 stars.

In an October 17, 2018 letter to Elon Musk, Morrison said that “For a second time now, Tesla has failed to comply with the terms of the [Motor Vehicles Advertising & Communication Usage] Guidelines.” He further contended that Tesla had made the 2013 and 2018 statements in a manner that “may lead to consumer confusion and give Tesla an unfair market advantage.”

Morrison forwarded Tesla’s statements to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for further investigation. Morrison stated the NHTSA would ask the FTC whether Tesla’s claims were in fact unfair or deceptive in their intent.

The Tesla Model X, Model S and Model 3 all have five-star safety ratings from the NHTSA.

For its part, Tesla respectfully disagreed with Morrison’s assessment. In a response dated October 31, 2018, Tesla Deputy General Counsel Al Prescott said, “Tesla’s statement is neither untrue nor misleading. To the contrary, Tesla has provided consumers with fair and objective information to compare the relative safety of vehicles having 5-star overall ratings.”

Neither representatives from Tesla nor the NHTSA officially commented on Bloomberg‘s report or the documents available through Plainsite. You can read the entire exchange by going to their website.

Tesla’s safety ratings

Each of Tesla’s current models — the Model 3, Model S and Model X — have 5 Star safety ratings from the NHTSA. The cease-and-desist letter stems not from how safe Tesla’s cars actually are. Instead, the NHTSA takes issues with how Tesla describes their cars’ safety, and how it characterizes the agency’s crash test data. NHTSA’s advertising guidelines warn against using terms like “safest” and “perfect” to describe its test results.

Going further, the agency subpoenaed information on certain accidents involving Tesla models, according to documents obtained by Plainsafe. Tesla requested NHTSA treat the information as confidential, in part because information would cause “substantial competitive harm to Tesla”. Namely, the information would reveal how the company learns about incidents through data collection and how it conducts over-the-air updates. Tesla is not alone in making those requests, as automakers often take steps to protect trade secrets.