Teslas crash more than gas-powered cars. Here’s why

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN

CNN  —  Hertz recently announced it was selling 20,000 electric cars out of its fleet, and replacing them with gasoline vehicles. One reason the company gave was that drivers kept crashing the cars.

Hertz CEO Stephen Scherr noted that the costs of repairs of an electric vehicle are also much higher. And Hertz’s step back from EV sales indicate a broader problem for the EV industry. Researchers at LexisNexis Risk Solutions looking at insurance data have found that, evidently, rental car drivers aren’t the only ones having issues keeping EVs in one piece.

Scherr’s statements echoed findings by insurance analysts at LexisNexis who found that, when vehicle owners switch from gasoline-powered cars to electric cars, they tend to crash more. Drivers also tend to crash somewhat more when switching to gas-powered vehicles, too, but the increase is more pronounced with EVs. The frequency of insurance claims rises by about 14.3 percent while the severity of claims, or the amount that has to paid out, increases by 14.5 percent, according to the data.

The increase in incidents is highest during the first year or so after drivers get the new electric vehicle, but then tapers off after that, according to LexisNexis, presumably as people get used to driving the new model. There is much less of a problem when a driver changes from a gasoline-powered vehicle to another gas-powered one, they found.

Mostly a Tesla thing

In both cases – with Hertz and with LexisNexis – “electric vehicles” largely means Teslas. Teslas accounted for 80 percent of Hertz’s EV fleet. Among privately owned electric vehicles, Teslas also make up the majority, given that they make up the majority of all new EVs sold in the US.

That suggests there may be something about Teslas that’s causing people to crash more than other cars. But LexisNexis researchers had previously noticed similar trends in China, where there are many more EVs – including more that aren’t Teslas.

In its research, LexisNexis looked at insurance claims for new electric vehicles that replaced a gas vehicle in a household. As much as possible, the analysts tried to even out other variables such as driver age, household income, and the level of insurance.

Crashes are even more frequent in households with both a gas and an electric model, indicating that regularly switching from one to another exacerbates the issues. And the fact that crash frequency lessens with time also suggests that unfamiliarity has something to do with it, said Xiaohui Lu, head of EV research at LexisNexis Risk Solutions,

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a US-based organization funded by the insurance industry, has not found higher crash rates for Tesla vehicles or other EVs more broadly based on overall insurance claims. Teslas do tend to have higher claim costs, though, according to the HLDI.

EV driving quirks

In many ways, there is little difference between driving an internal combustion-powered vehicle and an electric model like a Tesla. There is a brake pedal and an accelerator pedal and a steering wheel. But there are some key differences between driving a Tesla, as well as some other electric models, and driving gasoline-powered cars.

For instance, Tesla vehicles do not have a “Start” button to turn the vehicle on and off. Instead, once the driver sits in the vehicle it is instantly on and is ready to drive. When the driver gets out, the vehicle turns itself off. Since it’s an electric vehicle, meaning there’s no engine sound or vibration, the difference between on and off can sometimes be harder to discern.

Perhaps more importantly, for insurance purposes, said Lu, Teslas are fast. With their powerful electric motors, they can accelerate much more quickly than typical gasoline-powered vehicles.

For instance, a Tesla Model 3 Long Range, not even a particularly performance-oriented version, can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in 4.1 seconds, according to Car and Driver. The BMW 330i, by comparison, takes more than a second longer to reach that speed. The Tesla Model 3 Performance can do it in 3.1 seconds, according to Car and Driver’s tests. That kind of quickness was, before Tesla, associated with high-performance sports cars.

In the insurance business, there is a long-established connection between horsepower and the frequency and amount of insurance claims. Fast cars hit things more often and they hit them harder, leading to more – and more severe – crashes. Added to this, EVs lack the usual engine sounds that go along with rapid acceleration and high speeds, so it’s conceivable drivers are less aware of how fast they’re going.

Besides their added speed, EVs are also heavier than gas-powered vehicles because of their large, dense battery packs. That also leads to more damage in the vehicles the EV hits resulting in higher insurance claims.

High speeds aren’t even necessarily the issue, said Lu. Controlling speed is especially critical in low-speed environments, like a parking garages, with other cars and concrete posts all around. With gas cars, starting off from a stop requires the engine to rev up a bit before the car can start moving. Not so with EVs, which respond differently to pedal pressure.

“Most drivers are trained in driving [internal combustion] vehicles and they’re applying the habitual amount of pressure on the driving pedal but the behavior is very different, particularly in low-speed zones,” said Lu.

Electric vehicles can also have so-called “one-pedal driving” that slows the vehicle rapidly when the driver lifts off the accelerator pedal rather than simply allowing it to coast. Getting used to using just one pedal for both starting and stopping can lead to confusion in emergency situations when a quick slam on the actual brake pedal is needed.

Most drivers probably feel comfortable driving their new EVs with much less than three years of experience, said Lu.

But the research data indicates that confidence may be misplaced.

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