Do We Need To Think About Safety Differently With EVs?

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Yesterday, we got news of another tragic accident in a Tesla Model S where the vehicle, which was apparently traveling at a high rate of speed, crashed, ultimately landing in a pile amidst some palm trees in Downtown Miami, Florida. When speeding down the road, the vehicle lost control, slid through 3 lanes of traffic and smashed into some palm trees planted on the median.

After coming to a stop, the vehicle caught aflame and was quickly engulfed. An officer was on the scene and attempted to break the window, but was unable to. Early accounts from bystanders indicated that the doors would not open and that the airbags did not deflate, making it difficult for the occupant to get out. Sadly, the accident took the life of the driver of the Tesla Model S. The default behavior in Tesla’s vehicles is to have the doors pop open in the event of an accident. Airbags should also deflate after impact to allow the occupants to safely exit the vehicle.

We know that electric vehicles are far less likely to catch on fire than gasmobiles. That is not the question. We know that compared to their peers, Teslas are the safest vehicles in the world. They aren’t just safer on paper — they are statistically safer in the real world, with fewer accidents per million miles and fewer fatalities.

The real question is whether or not electric vehicles represent a new class of vehicles for which we need to redefine safety due to their powerful instant torque and smooth, silent powertrain even at high speed.

That said, we have to remember, people have always done stupid things in fast cars, so why would electric vehicles be any different? Some things cannot be avoided, but we do have more tools at our disposal to make them safer, so the question is not whether or not they are safer but whether or not we need to raise the bar for safety. We have so many new tools to make vehicles safer today.

The ability to control torque at each driven wheel more precisely is far better. The ability to increase functional crumple zones at the front and rear of the vehicle has improved. Active safety features and a range of sensors have improved the capability of our vehicles to react before it is humanly possible. These are all recent entrants to the field.

While the authorities have yet to confirm all of the specifics of this accident, the common thread with other Tesla accidents is speed. Tesla may make the safest lineup of vehicles on the market according to the tests developed for internal combustion vehicles, but they are also some of the quickest vehicles in the history of the world — that is part of the brand and the pedal aches to be stepped on.

Electric vehicles have redefined the driving experience, bringing new levels of instant torque to the table that completely change the driving experience. This first manifests itself as the EV smile, as drivers and occupants react to the rapid acceleration and “instant torque” put out by the electric motor as it guzzles power from the battery pack.

For faster vehicles, like Teslas, the smile often morphs into a fearful ohmigawd! reaction as the human occupants cling onto consciousness as it attempts to flee the situation.

For all the fun that can be had, the instant torque put out by electric vehicles is a complete step-change improvement from internal combustion vehicles. Powertrain latency is all but eliminated. Throttle response is nearly instantaneous, as electric motors put out nearly full torque from a standstill whereas internal combustion engines must ramp up before achieving peak torque output.

Image courtesy Tesla Shuttle

Electric vehicles also do away with the visual and vibration cues that we have grown accustomed to over decades of driving internal combustion vehicles. For better or worse, there is no growl of the engine. They just go. They don’t rattle your fillings loose like dad’s old diesel work truck. They are silent, smooth, and quiet — and this catches people by surprise.

Our very own Zachary Shahan experienced this surprise the first time he cut loose in our Tesla Model S. Within 5 minutes of getting behind the wheel, he was on the freeway speeding along at something greater than the speed limit (allegedly) and bam, was hit by the good ol’ California Highway Patrol. The resulting drive of shame took away most of the fun of driving an EV, but was undoubtedly much safer. And that was just in a Tesla Model S 85 (0–60 in 5.4 seconds). The current base configuration Model 3 achieves a 0–60 of 5.6 seconds — and that’s the cheapest, slowest Tesla you can buy today.

The natural question for us to step back and ask is, with EVs going so much faster and driving so much differently than internal combustion vehicles, do we need to think about safety differently? Does the bar for safety need to be raised for this new generation of electric vehicles? Do we need better education and awareness around the issue?

We don’t have all the answers here, but we are eager to help the rEVolution grow and to keep more people alive along the way. After all, electrifying transportation is just one piece of a much larger effort to hedge against human-caused catastrophic climate change, but crashing the car and getting hurt is not the aim and we should try to prevent against that as much as possible.

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

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