If there’s one thing that Elon Musk likes more than pseudoprofundity, it’s superlatives. Small wonder, then, that the company that brought us the Gigafactory, Superchargers, and Ludicrous Mode has had an easy time convincing its fan base that Tesla makes the “safest car on the road”:
Lurkers on Tesla forums can confirm that these safety superlatives are articles of faith among Tesla’s flock, and apparently this faith is shared by Wall Street: Morgan Stanley’s Adam Jonas recently predicted that Tesla’s Model 3 will be “an order of magnitude” safer than the average car. On May 18, Jonas went even further, claiming that after 7.2 billion miles, Teslas have only been “involved” in five U.S. fatalities.
Wait, what? Observant Twitter users were quick to dispute both Musk and Jonas. Following Jonas’ initial note, pseudonymous poster @ElonBachman crowd-sourced a list over a dozen US fatalities. Jonas was out shortly after with a new note admitting to 15 deaths globally. But the internet doesn’t sleep: as of today, @ElonBachman’s list has grown to include 40 Tesla fatalities globally, including 14 U.S. deaths of Tesla drivers and occupants and a Wile E. Coyote-esque smattering of deaths-by-cliff and deaths-by-swimming-pool. A link to that list, and the sources behind it, is included below the following table:
What do these numbers mean?
First: they mean that you should not rely on the sell-side for either accuracy or insight. Second: they mean that Musk’s “safest car” claim is bunk. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety lists numerous luxury cars in Tesla’s class that have zerorecorded fatalities (link here: http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/driver-death-rates), which would seem to disqualify the Model S and Model X (we’ll come back to the Model 3 in a minute).
What of Musk’s “4x safer than average” claim? This is tricky because in road safety statistics, as in Princess Bride, there are different kinds of “death.” Luckily, another Musk tweet gives us clues as to how Tesla calculates its deaths: