Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

Why Tesla got blowback from safety regulators

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WASHINGTON -- A five-star rating in every government crash test wasn't good enough for Tesla Motors Inc., and now the electric-vehicle startup is getting some blowback from auto safety regulators who feel Tesla's boasting went too far.

The 2013 Tesla Model S recently received five-star ratings on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's frontal, side, rear and rollover crash tests, earning the all-electric sedan an overall score of five stars. It was an impressive feat for any automaker -- let alone one that only started making cars a few years ago.

And this week, proud Tesla made an announcement that the company had received the "best safety rating of any car ever tested," citing a mathematical formula that NHTSA supplies to automakers.

Based on that formula, the Model S "achieved a new combined record of 5.4 stars," Tesla said in a statement. The company also claimed that during a roof crush test at an independent testing facility, the Model S broke the testing machine, thanks to a strengthened B-pillar that uses aerospace grade bolts.

U.S. regulators weren't pleased.

"NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories," the agency said in a posting on the front page of its Web site this week.

The 2013 Tesla Model S received five-star ratings on NHTSA's frontal, side, rear and rollover crash tests, earning the all-electric sedan an overall score of five stars.

Photo credit: NHTSA

NHTSA also pointed to its rules for advertising of crash-test results, which discourage the use of "potentially misleading words such as 'perfect,' 'safest,' 'flawless' or 'best in class' to describe the star rating received by the vehicle."

To think that Tesla could have been even bolder. The company's founder and CEO, Elon Musk, said during a July interview with Bloomberg that the Model S would get "six- or seven-star ratings" if the government's ratings went that high.

Tesla probably won't face any serious consequences for its claims, but the company may someday regret its reluctance to play nice with regulators.

For better or for worse, there is a good reason most car companies don't pick fights with the people who write the rules.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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