Tough Tesla highlights the electric-car advantage

21 August 2013

Tesla Model S crash test side impact

The fledgling electric car industry has had to battle numerous safety scares, from the whole-car crumple zone of the G-Wiz to spontaneously combusting Fiskers and Volts. Never mind that a diesel-powered G-Wiz would fare no better in a crash, or that petrol-powered cars are not exactly immune from bursting into flames.

So it is good to learn that Tesla has achieved the best score ever recorded after its Model S electric car underwent testing by the American equivalent of Euro NCAP. If fared better than Volvo’s best, reaching an extraordinarily high standard of structural protection. Not a bad first effort for Tesla, then.

Tesla Model S crash test front impact

The Model S gained a maximum five stars across the board, in frontal impacts, side impacts and in rollover testing.

Part of that success comes down to the unique layout of the Model S. As an electric car, there’s no bulky engine under the bonnet but a much more compact, cylindrical motor that fits snugly within the arc of the rear wheels. The front end of the car is mostly devoted to carrying luggage or fresh air, meaning it is free to collapse in an impact, absorbing energy so the car’s occupants don’t have to.

In an ordinary, front-engined car, by contrast, a big, solid lump of hot metal has to be safely contained and cradled in a crash – the unwelcome alternative would be to have the engine force its way into the cabin. The crumple zones of most cars, as a result, are unavoidably shorter. Somewhat pointedly, Tesla compares the difference to diving into a deep pool of water, as opposed to a shallow pond full of rocks.

Tesla Model S crash test under the bonnet

Another aspect of the electric car’s layout – the low-slung mass of the heavy batteries – helped the Model S to stay doggedly upright in rollover testing. The results show the Model S is keener on staying upright than any conventional car yet tested.

Side and rear impact success came through more conventional means, with strong reinforcements to the car’s aluminium structure. According to Tesla, the body has been designed to achieve a five-star result even when rammed at its weakest location, rather than at the specific point the test is known to target.

Tesla Model S crash test pole impact

It will be interesting to see how BMW fares when its new i3 electric car is chucked about by the experts at Euro NCAP. I suspect its carbon-aluminium structure will provide another standout performance.

And then, perhaps, the message will start to filter out that there some things – other than energy efficiency – at which it’s going to be tough to beat an EV.

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