AP FACT CHECK: Tesla safety claims aren’t quite right

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2015, file photo, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., introduces the Model X car at the company's headquarters in Fremont, Calif. For years, Tesla has boasted that its cars and SUVs are safer than other vehicles on the roads, and Musk doubled down on the claims in a series of tweets this week. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

By TOM KRISHER
AP Auto Writer
DETROIT — For years, Tesla has boasted that its cars and SUVs are safer than other vehicles on the roads, and CEO Elon Musk doubled down on the claims in a series of tweets this week.
The electric vehicles are under intense scrutiny from federal investigators, who have been looking into post-crash battery fires and the performance of Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving system. On Wednesday, they traveled to Utah to open another inquiry into a Tesla crash — their fourth this year — in which a Model S slammed into a firetruck that was stopped at a red light.
A look at some tweets and Tesla’s past claims about the safety of its vehicles and Autopilot:
MUSK (from his tweets Monday): “According to (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), there was an automotive fatality every 86M miles in 2017 ((tilde)40,000 deaths). Tesla was every 320M miles. It’s not possible to be zero, but probability of fatality is much lower in a Tesla.”
THE FACTS: This is based on a Tesla analysis of U.S. fatal crashes per miles traveled in 2017. The company’s math is correct on the fatality rate involving all of the nation’s 272 million vehicles, about 150,000 of which are Teslas, according to sales estimates from Ward’s Automotive. But Tesla won’t say how many fatalities occurred in its vehicles or how many miles they were driven.
We don’t know of any Tesla fatalities in 2017, but the numbers can vary widely from year to year. There have been at least three already this year and a check of 2016 NHTSA fatal crash data — the most recent year available — shows five deaths in Tesla vehicles.
Statistically, experts say Musk’s tweet analysis isn’t valid. While Teslas could have a lower death rate, it may speak more about the demographics of Tesla drivers than it does about safety of the vehicles, says Ken Kolosh, manager of statistics for the National Safety Council.
Expensive Teslas tend to be driven by middle-age affluent people who are less likely to get in a crash than younger people, Kolosh said.
Also, Tesla drivers tend to live in urban areas and travel on roads with lower speeds, where fatality rates are lower, he said.
Musk also is comparing a fleet of older, less-expensive vehicles to his newer and more costly models, Kolosh said. Most Teslas on the road are six years old or less. The average vehicle in the U.S. is 11.6 years old, according to IHS Markit. Older, less-expensive vehicles often aren’t maintained like newer ones and would have more mechanical problems.
MUSK (from his tweets Monday in reference to the Utah crash): “What’s actually amazing about this accident is that a Model S hit a fire truck at 60 mph and the driver only broke an ankle. An impact at that speed usually results in severe injury or death.”
THE FACTS: It’s true that the driver in the Utah crash sustained minor injuries considering how fast her car was traveling. The same is true for a January freeway crash near Los Angeles in which the driver was not hurt. But not all Tesla crashes end the same way.
In March, the driver of a Tesla Model X was killed in California when his SUV hit a barrier while traveling at “freeway speed.” NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating that case, in which the Autopilot system was engaged. Autopilot was also engaged in the Utah crash, according to a summary of data from the car.
Last week, the NTSB opened a probe into an accident in which a Model S caught fire after crashing into a wall at a high speed in Florida. Two 18-year-olds were trapped in the vehicle and died in the flames. The agency has said it does not expect Autopilot to be a focus of that investigation.
TESLA (from a March 30 press release): “Over a year ago, our first iteration of Autopilot was found by the U.S. government to reduce crash rates by as much as 40 percent.”
THE FACTS: The government says it did not assess how effective Autopilot is at reducing crashes. It did mention a 40 percent reduction in crash rates after “Autosteer” was installed in Tesla vehicles, based on data provided by Tesla.