Say what you will do about the cost of the Tesla Model 3, its range or its reliability on the single touch screen. But if you have to get into an accident, there are few cars that are better on the planet to sit inside. It is simply among the safest cars on the road. It has received a highest safety rating from the Highway Safety Insurance Institute, achieved a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, plus five stars from both the European and Australasian new car assessment programs.
You don't get crash test awards without breaking some metaphorical eggs, but in the car world you can't just crack those eggs wherever you want. Vehicle accident testing requires a specialized facility, which Tesla has hidden in a building without a description, not far from its Fremont, California plant.
If you didn't know that Tesla has a massive crash test facility in California, don't feel bad. I also didn't know that it was until I got the invitation to visit about a month ago. No journalist has ever been allowed in their doors, so I hope you will join me on an exclusive tour of the Tesla Crash Test Lab and look at how Model 3 earned all these stars.
I can't tell exactly where the Tesla Crash Test Lab is located, but it's in Fremont, not far from the company's factory, or indeed several other Tesla logo buildings that have popped up in the surrounding area. However, this building has no such brand.
The Crash Test Lab lives in a non-descriptive warehouse, far from the massive, custom-built structures used by other global manufacturers such as Volvo. There really is a kind of bare bones, underdog feel to the place that is quite compatible with the company's overall vibe. But look a little closer and you soon realize that everything has gone together with a generous dose of inventive wealth.
Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the mechanism that drives the car crashing along the lane to its final destination. Cars are mounted on a skate driven by cables. But what pulls the cables? Most plants rely on massive, custom-built engines or engines. Tesla's solution is a bit more fitting: a pair of Model S Performance rear drives bolted to the floor and connected to a 1
It would be easy to dismiss this as a little cobbled-together salvage pickup, but while the engines were really saved, it wasn't the only goal. This system gives Tesla crash test engineers an incredibly accurate torque modulation. At one end, this allows for smooth acceleration of the test car, ensuring that the Hybrid III test dummies belted within do not come off. On the other hand, this system provides the exact speed required for a particular test at the point of impact (measured to an accuracy of 0.023 mph at 50 mph).
The same sense of creative reuse applies to all areas of the plant, including a pedestrian war rig manufactured by a FANUC R-2000iB robot arm that is reused at the factory. Instead of moving components in place on the assembly line, it now spends its days throwing dummy heads and limbs at doors and screens. There is also a specially assembled range of hydraulic pistons designed for the specific purpose of finding the breaking point for Tesla's specially designed seats – perhaps the most important single component of the overall safety game.
And just what is the breaking point for a Tesla-engineered seat? The company says that the middle row of a Model X can handle at least 96 kilotons of power. That's over £ 21,000.
The Simulation Game
While Tesla then exposed the Model 3 to hundreds of physical crash tests up to launch and continues to tear even further as various updates are made to the platform, there is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of simulated crash tests performed on the machine during its design and development.
While not as visually exciting as seeing a real car run into a real wall in speed, simulation is an increasingly valuable tool that saves both time and money. These are finite resources in all organizations, but especially valuable for a relative upbringing like Tesla. The company relies on a high-performance computer cluster that distributes up to 144 CPUs for a complete crash test simulation for vehicles that can take more than a day to run.
Simulation is far from novel for Tesla, but the company's confidence in the technology has increased significantly since the days of Model S and X testing. Components in Model 3 were first driven through the simulated mounts way back in 2015, one year before the production car's reveal.
Due to Tesla's tight, vertical integration of almost every aspect of vehicle manufacturing, the company's designers work closely with those who run crash test simulations. There is a constant dialogue and exchange of digital models back and forth.
The same dialogue continues to the manufacturing process. Individual components, whether produced internally or from suppliers, face a rigorous series of tests to validate their individual real properties (such as tensile strength and ductility), ensuring their performance matches the simulation. Given that Tesla's seed factory is also located just down the road, manufacturing audits are also done in short order.
The net result? I got to see a series of visualizations produced from these simulations, close-up images of the car from the front and various other crash structures that are compressed under virtual loads. These images were then overlapped with images from real crash tests. The virtual matched the real with almost millimeter precision.
In most crash test facilities I have visited, the spectator area is far away from the impact zone itself. Didn't look at Tesla's. I'm about 50 feet from the crash track, maybe 200 feet from the impact zone itself, and very grateful for the concrete blocks and the wall of the Lexan glass between myself and Model X that accelerates toward a 200,000-pound concrete barrier that marks the end of their journey.
To this plate, Tesla engineers can bolt a variety of receiving crash test shapes and structures to simulate frontal, lateral, or even angled strokes. Today, however, the SUV trolls to a large, flat surface at 25 km / h. From my position I can hear the whine of the Model S engines as they roll in the vehicle, but the building is deadly silent at the moment before the shock.
And then, an ear holding wham . 25 km / h can seem like a relatively small speed for a crash, but even at that speed, which takes an SUV of 5,000 plus pounds to a complete stop in a fraction of a second, consuming a lot of energy. It means a lot of noise.
To this is added the explosive power of the airbags, which go from precisely packed to fully inflated in less than 80 milliseconds. Then, again, it is completely silent. First on the stage are a couple of engineers who test the integrity of the battery. The first one has the stiffest multimeter I have ever seen. The second one, which is just behind the first one, has a human-sized plastic hook. It is the other person's job to pull the first one away from the battery if their rubber boots would not insulate them.
When all is clear, more engineers are arriving at the stage with laptops and downloading telemetry from the dozens of sensors applied before the crash, reading figures such as acceleration and movement at various points throughout and within the vehicle.
Then I finally get out of my walled area. As the car approaches from behind, the car looks almost completely unaffected. Also from the side you can see that the A-pillars are properly intact, and the front doors open without any problems. But in front of it is a little mess. The front of the car has crumpled inwards, coolant system punctured, a lost green pool marking the end of the road for this Model X.
Only one of the many cars destroyed on the road to the glory of the safety test, like a crushed Model 3, sits not far away. This one escaped from the scrap yard because it is the car itself that received the model's NHTSA five-star rating. I can see how the front subframe and crash structure collapsed and sent the engine down into the ground to reduce the power transmitted through the cabin. Inside, I can see the unique passenger airbag, "bullhorn" shaped to stabilize the head and arms so that they do not affect Model 3's pronounced touchscreen.
Despite its importance, the wrecked car looks really sad and for a company so focused on reducing the environmental impact of transport, it is difficult not to see the whole process as a bit wasteful. Perhaps one day, NHTSA and its international difficulties will enable simulated results and thus save a lot of sheet metal from an early and sudden end. But until then, such facilities will continue to be a necessity, and in Tesla's case very effective at that.