When will US consumers learn that their vehicles can save lives?

February 15, 2024

By Ken McLeod
Policy Director
League of American Bicyclists 

The Tesla Model Y is sold in the U.S. and Europe. It looks the same in both markets. It was the best-selling vehicle worldwide in 2023. 

If you’ve heard about Tesla’s active safety technologies, you’ve likely heard of “autopilot” or “full self-driving.” You may have heard that Tesla was prohibited from using those marketing terms in certain markets or that the Department of Justice is investigating if Tesla misled consumers, investors, and regulators about Autopilot or that the California Department of Motor Vehicles filed complaints against Tesla for the use of those terms as untrue or misleading. 

You likely haven’t heard, especially if you live in the United States, that Tesla models like the Model Y are equipped with automatic emergency braking (AEB) that can completely avoid a collision with a cyclist in three common crash scenarios at speeds up to 60 kph (~37 mph). Stripped of potentially misleading marketing, this is a praiseworthy result that at least some people may find compelling when they are shopping for a new vehicle. 

Unfortunately, the only reason that I can speak to the lifesaving performance of Tesla’s AEB system is that the European New Car Assessment Program (EuroNCAP) makes its testing easy to access and easy to understand. The Tesla Model Y was its “best in class” small SUV in 2022 and it received a perfect score for its cyclist-related safety evaluation.  

It is possible, and I hope likely, that Teslas sold in the United States have the exact same systems and exact same performance, but the truth is that we do not know because there is no equivalent testing of U.S. models. For models that are sold in the U.S., but not in Europe, there is no information available whatsoever about their ability to save the lives of people who bike. This is especially an issue for large full-size trucks that are some of the best-selling vehicles in the United States and are known to have front end designs that are more likely to cause injury to cyclists. 

The United States, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), created the idea of public testing of vehicle safety in 1979 with its New Car Assessment Program (NCAP). Over the last few decades, the success of this consumer information program has seen it replicated and expanded upon worldwide. As of 2023, at least five NCAPs outside of the United States have published procedures for testing cyclist-AEB. In the United States, NHTSA has taken no action for bicyclist safety other than suggesting that they’ll make a proposal between 2026-2030.  

I can talk about how a U.S.-designed vehicle from a U.S.-based manufacturer can save the lives of people who bike only because EuroNCAP started testing cyclist-AEB in 2018. Without a change in urgency, after cyclist fatalities reached a 45-year high in 2021, that will likely still be true in the U.S. a decade after EuroNCAP began its testing. That is why the League of American Bicyclists has consistently asked for cyclist-AEB testing since 2015, organized a letter with over 180 other organizations, and worked with Congressman Earl Blumenauer to write a letter to NHTSA asking for more immediate action.  

EuroNCAP continues to press forward in the way that NCAP was originally envisioned, with testing added for emerging technologies to promote their adoption by consumers interested in saving lives. In 2023, EuroNCAP added testing for cyclist dooring prevention and an additional cyclist-AEB scenario. Absent a change of course by NHTSA, consumers in the U.S. will continue to lack information on lifesaving technology that is available to consumers elsewhere. 

The U.S. was once a leader on vehicle safety. Now, it is an international outlier in traffic safety trends as it hits new records for increased traffic deaths. For 32 countries that participate in the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group (IRTAD), bicyclist deaths were down 8.3% and pedestrian deaths were down 27.3% between 2012-2022. For that same time period, bicyclist deaths increased 31.6% and pedestrian deaths increased 53.3% in the United States. 

We can and must do better. Vehicles are getting bigger and faster, and technology is being offered as the cure for the dangers posed by those trends. Providing objective, test-based information on the safety of vehicles for all users so that U.S. consumers can know the lifesaving potential of their new vehicles should be an easy place to start. 

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