With all of the hoopla and controversy surrounding Tesla, one thing that most everyone can (or should) agree on is that the Model S is one of the safest cars on the road. In fact, one could make a strong case that it’s one of the safest cars ever released in automotive history.

The number of safety accolades the Model S has garnered since its release is truly impressive. For instance, when the Model S received a 5-star safety rating from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013, it received 5 stars in every tested category. As a result, it achieved a level of safety that only 1% of tested cars ever attain. Further, the Model S at the time set a new record for having the lowest likelihood of passenger injury during a collision, besting all makes and models of all vehicles sold in the United States. 

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With that as a backdrop, famed movie executive and Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg recently thanked Tesla CEO Elon Musk after the safety provided by his resilient Model S saved his life after getting into a serious car accident.

“Thank you, Elon Musk — you saved my life,” Katzenberg told The Hollywood Reporter. “I shattered my arm and wrist and destroyed the car. It was pretty bad. It was a big surgery and not fun.”

Katzenberg was able to leave the hospital after less than four days while the Model S itself was completely totaled.

After getting wind of Katzenberg’s ‘thank-you’, Musk responded via Twitter.

Returning to the Model S’ stellar safety record, the company issued a press release in 2013 highlighting many of the vehicle’s impressive achievements. It reads in part:

The Model S has the advantage in the front of not having a large gasoline engine block, thus creating a much longer crumple zone to absorb a high speed impact. This is fundamentally a force over distance problem – the longer the crumple zone, the more time there is to slow down occupants at g loads that do not cause injuries. Just like jumping into a pool of water from a tall height, it is better to have the pool be deep and not contain rocks.

For the side pole intrusion test, considered one of the most difficult to pass, the Model S was the only car in the “good” category among the other top one percent of vehicles tested. Compared to the Volvo S60, which is also 5-star rated in all categories, the Model S preserved 63.5 percent of driver residual space vs. 7.8 percent for the Volvo. Tesla achieved this outcome by nesting multiple deep aluminum extrusions in the side rail of the car that absorb the impact energy (a similar approach was used by the Apollo Lunar Lander) and transfer load to the rest of the vehicle. This causes the pole to be either sheared off or to stop the car before the pole hits an occupant.

The Model S was also substantially better in rollover risk, with the other top vehicles being approximately 50 percent worse. During testing at an independent facility, the Model S refused to turn over via the normal methods and special means were needed to induce the car to roll. The reason for such a good outcome is that the battery pack is mounted below the floor pan, providing a very low center of gravity, which simultaneously ensures exceptional handling and safety.

Of note, during validation of Model S roof crush protection at an independent commercial facility, the testing machine failed at just above 4 g’s. While the exact number is uncertain due to Model S breaking the testing machine, what this means is that at least four additional fully loaded Model S vehicles could be placed on top of an owner’s car without the roof caving in. This is achieved primarily through a center (B) pillar reinforcement attached via aerospace grade bolts.

The above results do not tell the full story. It is possible to game the regulatory testing score to some degree by strengthening a car at the exact locations used by the regulatory testing machines. After verifying through internal testing that the Model S would achieve a NHTSA 5-star rating, Tesla then analyzed the Model S to determine the weakest points in the car and retested at those locations until the car achieved 5 stars no matter how the test equipment was configured.

Say what you will about Tesla, but the company’s unwavering dedication to driver safety is undoubtedly something to be lauded.

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