Elon Musk Explains What Happens When A Tesla Crashes

November 7, 2015, 3:25 PM UTC
Tesla Introduces Self-Driving Features With Software Upgrade
A member of the media test drives a Tesla Motors Inc. Model S car equipped with Autopilot in Palo Alto, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. Tesla Motors Inc. will begin rolling out the first version of its highly anticipated "autopilot" features to owners of its all-electric Model S sedan Thursday. Autopilot is a step toward the vision of autonomous or self-driving cars, and includes features like automatic lane changing and the ability of the Model S to parallel park for you. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the surprise speaker at the Baron Investment Conference in New York Friday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk discussed the claims that his company’s electric cars have been saving people’s lives lately.

A few weeks ago, Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had an accident while driving his Tesla (TSLA) Model S, but credited the car for the fact that he walked away with nothing more than a broken arm, and specifically thanked Musk. Then last week, an Uber driver posted a video showing how his Tesla, using its new autopilot mode, automatically stopped just in time to avoid a gnarly head-on crash. Ron Baron, the head of Baron Capital who founded the conference, mentioned both incidents to Musk, who was already well aware of them, and asked the CEO why he didn’t play up Tesla’s safety benefits more in the company’s marketing.

“In fact in designing the Model S and the Model X, safety was our absolute paramount goal,” Musk responded. “I felt like obviously my family will be in the car, my friends’ families, and if I didn’t do everything possible to maximize safety and something went wrong, I couldn’t live with myself.”

Because Tesla’s electric motors are so much smaller than conventional steel engines, the cars also have a “crumple zone” two or three times larger than traditional cars, which keeps drivers safer in the event of a head-on collision (if autopilot failed to keep the car out of harm’s way), Musk said. “When you have a high-speed frontal collision,” he added, “It’s just like jumping into a pool from a high diving board—you want a deep pool and one without rocks in it.”

Tesla cars are built for “maximum safety,” Musk said, though he doesn’t measure safety the way the government does, with the standard 5-star safety ratings. (Tesla’s Model S does have a full 5-star rating, though.) “This ‘5 stars’ is not like an actual statistic. Safety statistics are not measured really in stars.”

Instead, Musk pays attention to a car’s injury rating, where “the Model S still has the lowest probability of injury of any car ever tested,” he said. “It is just objectively true, it is the safest car by far.”

In Katzenberg’s case, he was “T-boned by an SUV, so that’s a side impact collision,” Musk said. The Model S also performs “much better than any other car” in that scenario, he explained—getting into some of the more complex physics principles—essentially because it’s designed to distribute the shock throughout the car so that no one part bears the brunt of the hit. “So the whole car moves sideways in a side impact collision,” the CEO said.