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Tesla catches NHTSA flak for some safety claims, documents reveal

It's not the first time Tesla's received warnings about its safety-related marketing.

Tesla appears unwavering in its dedication to continue using these metrics in its marketing.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Tesla's cars are mighty safe, no doubt about it, as we've seen reflected in scores from both NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. While Tesla has been eager to tout its five-star NHTSA ratings, it has occasionally reached into its bag of tricks and pulled out lines for marketing that the feds don't necessarily approve of. According to a new report and recently surfaced documents, Tesla has received a fair amount of scrutiny to this end.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Tesla CEO Elon Musk certified mail asking the California-based automaker to stop using certain figures in its marketing about safety claims, Bloomberg reports, citing documents posted to Plainsite, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to the letter, which was sent on Oct. 17, 2018, NHTSA claimed that Tesla's "use of NHTSA five-star ratings and associated data is inconsistent with NHTSA's government five-star ratings for motor vehicles advertising and communication usage guidelines." Citing a previous violation along the same lines, the letter stated that NHTSA was referring the matter to the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection "to investigate whether these statements constitute unfair or deceptive acts or practices."

The letter appears to focus on Tesla's use of the "probability of injury" metric, a figure Tesla alone has used in its marketing -- other automakers stick with the star-based rating. NHTSA claims that comparing these ratings for vehicles with weight differentials in excess of 250 pounds is against best practices. "It is therefore inaccurate to claim that the Model 3 has 'the lowest probability of injury in all cars' or that Model 3 occupants are 'less likely to get seriously hurt' or 'have the best chance of avoiding a serious injury,'" the letter reads.

Tesla's counsel, Jonathan Morrison, sent NHTSA a multipage response. "Respectfully, we disagree with the agency's position," Morrison wrote in the letter. "Tesla's blog statements are entirely based on actual test results and NHTSA's own calculations for determining relative risk of injury and probability of injury." The letter went on to scrutinize NHTSA's criticisms, before saying, "We do not see a reason to discontinue use of our safety blog or these statements as long as no other vehicle surpasses the Model 3 Long Range RWD's vehicle safety score and overall probability of injury."

When asked for comment, a Tesla spokesperson pointed Roadshow to Morrison's letter. NHTSA did not immediately return a request for comment.

This is not the first time Tesla and NHTSA have butted heads. After claiming that NHTSA's detailed test results gave the Model S a 5.4-star rating, NHTSA took Tesla to task and the automaker eventually stopped mentioning that tidbit in its materials. Tesla has also tussled with the IIHS after the Model S did not receive a Top Safety Pick award for its performance in crash tests and evaluations. Following that announcement, Tesla subtly hinted that the IIHS might have a subjective agenda beyond safety, which no other automaker has levied at the IIHS after hearing not-so-great news.  

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