Say what you like about the Tesla Model 3’s cost, its range or its over-reliance on that lone touchscreen. But if you have to get into an accident, there are few cars better on the planet to be seated within. It is, quite simply, among the safest cars on the road. It’s been rated an IIHS Top Safety Pick Plus, achieved a suite of five-star ratings from NHTSA, plus five stars from both the Euro NCAP and the Australasian NCAP test.
You don’t get crash-test accolades without breaking a few metaphorical eggs, but in the automotive world, you can’t just crack these eggs wherever you like. Dedicated vehicle crash testing requires a very specialized facility, like the one Tesla has hidden in a nondescript building not far from its factory in Fremont, California.
If you didn’t know that Tesla has a massive crash-test facility in California, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know it existed, either, until I got the invitation to come visit about a month ago. No journalist has ever been allowed within its doors, so I hope you’ll join me for an exclusive tour of the Tesla Crash Test Lab and a look at just how the Model 3 earned all those stars.
I’m not allowed to tell you exactly where the Tesla Crash Test Lab is located, but it’s in Fremont, not far from the company’s factory, or indeed, various other Tesla-logo’d buildings that have sprung up in the surrounding locality. This building, however, has no such branding.
The Crash Test Lab lives within a nondescript warehouse, a far cry from the massive, purpose-built structures used by other global manufacturers like Volvo. Indeed, there’s a sort of bare-bones, underdog feel to the place that’s pretty consistent with the company’s overall vibe. But, look a little closer and you’ll soon realize that everything has been pieced together with a generous dose of ingenuity.
Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the mechanism that drives the car to be crashed along the track to its final destination. Cars are mounted to a skate that’s propelled by cables. But what pulls the cables? Most facilities rely on massive, purpose-built engines or motors. Tesla’s solution is a bit more fitting: a pair of Model S Performance rear drive units bolted to the floor and connected to a 100-kWh battery pack. Together, the system provides 1,200 nm (about 885 ft.-lbs.) of torque.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as a bit of cobbled-together salvage-yard picking, but while the motors were indeed salvaged, that wasn’t the only goal. This system provides Tesla crash test engineers with incredibly precise torque modulation. On one end, this enables smooth acceleration of the test car, ensuring the Hybrid III test dummies belted within are not dislodged. On the other, this system provides the exact speed required for a given test at the point of impact (measured to an accuracy of 0.023 mph at 50 mph).
Instead of moving components into place on the assembly line, the robot arm now spends its days flinging dummy heads and limbs at doors and fenders.
That same sense of creative repurposing applies to every area within the facility, including a pedestrian crash rig made from a FANUC R-2000iB robot arm repurposed from the factory. Instead of moving components into place on the assembly line, now it spends its days flinging dummy heads and limbs at doors and fenders. There’s also a custom-assembled array of hydraulic pistons designed for the specific purpose of finding the breaking point of Tesla’s custom-designed seats — perhaps the most important single component in the overall safety game.
And just what is the breaking point of a Tesla-engineered seat? The company says the middle row of a Model X can handle at least 96 kilonewtons of force. That’s over 21,000 pounds.
The simulation game
While Tesla subjected the Model 3 sedan to hundreds of physical crash tests in the lead-up to its launch, and continues to demolish even more as various updates are made to the platform, that’s 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 watching a real car run into a real wall at speed, simulation is an increasingly valuable tool, saving both time and money. These are finite resources in any organization, but especially precious for a relative upstart like Tesla. The company relies on a high performance computing (HPC) cluster, deploying upwards of 144 CPUs for a full vehicle crash test simulation that can take more than a day to run.
Simulation is far from novel to Tesla, but the company’s reliance on the technology has increased greatly since the days of Model S and X testing. Model 3 components were first run through the simulated gauntlet way back in 2015, a year before the production car’s unveiling.
Because of Tesla’s tight, vertical integration of nearly every aspect of vehicle production, the company’s designers work closely with those running the crash test simulations. There’s a constant dialogue and exchanging of digital models back and forth.
That same dialogue continues through to the manufacturing process. Individual components, whether produced in-house or sourced from suppliers, face a rigorous series of tests to validate their individual real-world characteristics (tensile strength, ductility, etc.), ensuring their performance matches the simulation. Given Tesla’s seed factory is also just down the road, manufacturing revisions happen in short order as well.
The net result? I was shown a series of visualizations produced from these simulations, close-up views from beneath the car of the front subframe and various other crash structures compressing under virtual loads. That footage was then overlaid with footage from real crash tests. The virtual matched the real with almost millimetric precision.
In most crash test facilities I’ve visited, the spectator area is located far away from the impact zone itself. Not so at Tesla’s. I’m about 50 feet from the crash track, maybe 200 feet from the impact zone itself, and very thankful for the concrete blocks and wall of Lexan between myself and the Model X accelerating towards a 200,000-pound concrete barrier that marks the end of its journey.
To this slab, Tesla engineers can bolt a variety of different receiving crash test shapes and structures to simulate frontal, side or even angled impacts. Today, though, the SUV is trundling towards a big, flat surface at 25 mph. From my position, I can hear the whine from the Model S motors as they reel the vehicle in, but the building is deathly quiet in the moment before impact.
And then, an ear-piercing wham. 25 mph may seem like a reasonably minor speed for a crash, but even at that speed, bringing a 5,000-plus-pound SUV to a complete stop in a fraction of a second displaces a lot of energy. That means a lot of noise.
First on the scene are a pair of engineers who will test the battery integrity. The first holds the beefiest multimeter I’ve ever seen. The second, standing just behind the first, wields a human-sized plastic hook.
Adding to that is the explosive force provided by the airbags, which go from precisely packaged to fully inflated in less than 80 milliseconds. Then, again, it’s all quiet. First on the scene are a pair of engineers who will test the battery integrity. The first holds the beefiest multimeter I’ve ever seen. The second, standing just behind the first, wields a human-sized plastic hook. It’s the second person’s job to pull the first away from the battery should their rubber boots fail to protect them.
Once the all-clear is given, more engineers arrive on the scene with laptops, downloading the telemetry from the dozens of sensors affixed before the crash, reading figures like acceleration and motion at various points throughout and within the vehicle.
Then, finally, I’m allowed out of my walled-off area. Approaching from the rear, the car looks almost completely unaffected. Even from the side you can see that the A-pillars are firmly intact, front doors opening without issue. But ahead of that is a bit of a mess. The front of the car has crumpled inward, coolant system punctured, a forlorn green puddle marking the end of the road for this Model X.
It’s just one of the many cars wrecked along the way towards safety testing glory, like a smashed Model 3 that sits not far away. This one escaped the scrapyard because it’s the very car that received the model’s NHTSA five-star rating. I can see the way the front subframe and crash structure collapsed, sending the motor downward into the ground to lessen the force transmitted through the cabin. Inside, I can see the unique passenger airbag, “bullhorn” shaped to stabilize the head and arms, keeping them from impacting the Model 3’s pronounced touchscreen.
Despite its significance, that wrecked car looks decidedly sad and, for a company so focused on reducing the environmental impact of transportation, it’s hard to not see the whole process as a bit wasteful. Perhaps some day NHTSA and its international ilk will allow for simulated results, thus sparing a lot of sheetmetal from an early and abrupt end. But, until then, facilities like this will continue to be a necessity, and in Tesla’s case, very effective ones at that.