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Tesla Model 3 2019: Is it really the safest car?

Tesla isn’t afraid to make bold claims.

In 2018, Tesla claimed the Model 3 was the safest car on sale in the USA, with the “lowest probability of injury” after it was tested by the country’s safety authority. The problems is, the safety authority doesn’t agree.

So the US electric car maker is engaged in a conflict with America’s safety body - the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - about claims the Model 3 is the ‘safest’ car on the road.

While neither side is disputing the car’s five-star rating on the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP), new documents, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, show lawyers from Tesla and the NHTSA dispute the car maker’s claims that the Model 3 has “the lowest probability of injury of any vehicle ever tested by” the safety body.

In a blog post issued last October the NHTSA wrote: “A five-star rating is the highest safety rating a vehicle can achieve. NHTSA does not distinguish safety performance beyond that rating, thus there is no "safest" vehicle among those vehicles achieving five-star ratings.”`

The newly public documents reveal how far the safety body went, issuing Tesla with a cease-and-desist letter that same month, as well as referring the matter to the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

The papers include an email from Tesla’s legal counsel showing how the company pushed back against the request to stop claiming the Model 3 is safer than other new cars. The lawyer, Al Prescott, wrote to the NHTSA to not only deny the suggestion it was misleading consumers by claiming the Model 3 is safer than other five-star NCAP vehicles, but said it was trying to help consumers given the increasing commonality of the maximum rating.

He wrote: “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 five-star overall ratings. NHTSA’s NCAP has succeeded in challenging manufacturers to develop safer vehicles, and now, with approximately 40 per cent of vehicles receiving five-star overall ratings, it is more important than ever to help consumers differentiate.”

It’s part of a wider on-going legal back-and-forth between the two organisations that has seen the NHTSA issue several subpoenas to Tesla for accidents, including those related to its controversial ‘Autopilot’ system. According to the documents representatives from the NHTSA and Tesla meet several times per year to keep updated on the latest Autopilot developments and over-the-air software updates.

Tesla scored a five-star rating for the Model 3 in the Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) and earned praise from the local organisation for achieving the maximum score with its current entry-level specification model.

Tesla issued the following statement to CarsGuide: “As expected, any regulator like NHTSA would be interested in new vehicle technologies and how they make our highways safer. Tesla is at the forefront of safety, and we share information with NHTSA on a regular basis, including Autopilot safety performance, which we also report publicly on our website.

"The documents and subpoenas referenced are business as usual and reflect an open and collaborative relationship between Tesla and NHTSA. We routinely share information with the agency while also balancing the need to protect customer privacy. Tesla has required subpoenas when customer information is requested in order to protect the privacy of our customers.”

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