How A Bent Model Y Seat Reveals A Huge Hole In US Safety Standards
The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
“The fact that Tesla, a company considered by many to be on the cutting edge of fuel and driving technology, could choose to use a seatback that is no more protective in a crash than a lawn chair is the perfect example of the need to upgrade our seat safety standards. No matter how good autonomous driver technology gets over the next few decades, vehicles are likely to crash, and occupant protection will remain a pressing need. It would be nice to see car companies who want to lead us all into the future of not needing a driver to also lead on the need to protect the consumers who they expect to be in their driverless cars.” – Jason Levine, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety.
“We have asked NHTSA to update the standard – often. We were glad to see Senators Markey and Blumenthal introduce legislation last month that would require such an update.” – Jason Levine, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety.
“There is a slightly different standard, but we do not believe it is good enough.” – Jason Levine, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety.
August 13, 2020
by Gustavo Henrique Ruffo
On August 11, 2020, the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General announced it would conduct an audit of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Inspector General cites the fact that 36,000 people died in traffic in the US in 2019 as cause for the audit. It may seem this has no connection to a recent Tesla Model Y accident in which the front passenger seat bent backward. The seat probably complies with FMVSS 207, which establishes requirements for seats, their attachment assemblies, and installation. The problem is this makes no difference to safety.
You may see the Model Y’s curved seat and wonder how serious this can be. The answer, simply put, is that it can be fatal. Not only to rear-seat passengers – especially children – but also to people sitting in the front seats, as this video from March 1, 2016, shows.
The video tells the stories of multiple people who were hurt because the seats in their cars were inadequate to protect them. It shows how Taylor Warner and Crystal Butler died because of them. They were 16 months old and 7 years old, respectively, when bent seats put an end to their stories. This places the Model Y case into a different perspective: it is not only a Tesla issue. It is a problem for US consumers as a whole.
George Hetzer III got in touch with InsideEVs after reading our article on the Model Y seat. He is an engineer with a lot of experience in car seat designs, having worked for TS Tech Americas, Honda’s Tier 1 supplier for seats. Hetzer took care of “development, validation, and verification testing/documentation from prototype through mass production and all the milestones in between.”
The engineer says he worked on more than 100 seat projects. If it sounds like too much, especially considering some cars may share seats, that’s because “there are export models for each model type.” We’ll bring this up at a later point in this article.
Hetzer told us this about the federal safety standard for seats.
“To summarize, FMVSS 207 is a static pull test. A hydraulic cylinder applies a load in the forward, rearward, and longitudinal directions. One thing you’ll notice immediately upon reading FMVSS 207 is how old-fashioned it is. It has test conditions for seats without seatbelts and hasn’t been revised in decades.
Most significant is that FMVSS 207 is a static load test. The result of a static load test tends to have very little correlation with the results of a dynamic strength test (e.g., a car crash that occurs entirely over tens of milliseconds). There are many articles discussing the inadequacies of 207 and proposals for more modern testing requirements. Due to fatal accidents, litigation, and the likelihood a new specification will be implemented in the future, automakers have created their own internal specifications for dynamic seat strength limits.”
We asked Hetzer why he thinks FMVSS 207 still stands as the only standard for seats in the US.
“NHTSA says its ‘5-Star Ratings Program has a limited budget and must concentrate its ratings on front and side-impact crashes that are responsible for the highest percentage of deaths and serious injuries.’ While this is true, it has become a point of contention among automotive safety researchers. A failure mode that has a high probability of mortality/fatality should be addressed regardless of statistical analysis on a large dataset. NHTSA does perform FMVSS 301, which includes a semi-rigid rear impact, to test for fuel spillage.”
FMVSS 301 is another safety standard and you’ll want to remember it for later.