Tesla Model 3 Regains CR Top Pick Status and IIHS Safety Award

New IIHS testing shows that Tesla’s new camera-based system provides effective automatic emergency braking

2021 Tesla Model 3 Photo: Tesla

The Tesla Model 3 has regained its status as a Consumer Reports Top Pick after independent tests proved the effectiveness of its new camera-based automatic emergency braking (AEB) and forward collision warning (FCW) systems.

Earlier today, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released the first evaluations of new Tesla vehicles that use a camera-based system for AEB and FCW. Because of their performance, the Model 3 will once again get a Top Safety Pick+ designation, which is the IIHS’ highest safety award.

“Given the IIHS’ recent evaluations of Tesla’s new camera-based system on its Model 3 and consistent with CR’s integration of IIHS ratings into our recommendations, CR is restoring the car’s Top Pick status,” says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s Auto Test Center. 

The development is significant because Tesla recently decided to no longer equip Model 3 sedans and Model Y SUVs with radar sensors, instead choosing to rely on a camera-based system it calls Tesla Vision. In a blog post, Tesla said that Tesla Vision-equipped cars will also use machine learning software it calls a “neural network” to perform some functions that were once reliant on radar. At the time the Tesla Vision-equipped Model 3 and Model Y went on sale, the technology’s FCW and AEB performance had not yet been independently tested.

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The Model 3 temporarily lost its CR Top Pick designation in May, after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration indicated that FCW, lane departure warning (LDW), and two AEB functions—crash imminent braking and dynamic brake support—were not available on Model 3 vehicles built on or after April 27, 2021. The IIHS also removed the Top Safety Pick+ designation for Tesla Vision-equipped Model 3s built before May 1, 2021, at the same time.

We asked Tesla whether any vehicles were delivered without functional FCW or AEB, or what information the automaker gave NHTSA in order for the agency to make those changes to its website, but Tesla did not answer our questions. In May, Tesla’s website stated that “cars with Tesla Vision may be delivered with some features temporarily limited or inactive” but did not provide a comprehensive list of what those features were.

When the IIHS tested a newer Model 3 with Tesla Vision earlier this month, it awarded the vehicle a top Superior rating in a test of whether it could avoid or lessen a collision with another vehicle, and an acceptable Advanced rating in tests of whether it could avoid or lessen the impact of striking a pedestrian. 

These results are the same as those the IIHS got when it tested an earlier Model 3 with radar, says David Aylor, manager of active safety testing at the IIHS. “The performance seems to be similar for both systems,” he told CR. The similar Tesla Model Y also uses a camera-based system but does not have a Top Safety Pick+ designation because it has yet to be tested, Aylor says.

“While we are very glad to see the system performs well in preventing crashes, ideally consumers would not have been in a holding pattern, waiting to find out if the car they purchased has vital safety features,” says CR’s Fisher.

NHTSA Tesla Model 3 ratings
NHTSA's website does not show the newer Model 3 as having standard FCW or AEB.

Illustration: NHTSA Illustration: NHTSA

To be considered for a CR Top Pick, a vehicle must be recommended and have standard FCW and AEB with pedestrian detection. CR determines whether a vehicle has these features based on both NHTSA and IIHS ratings. Safety features also factor into a vehicle’s Overall Score, and without standard AEB and FCW, the Model 3’s temporarily dropped from 78 to 75.

In May, NHTSA changed its website to indicate that FCW, AEB, and LDW were not available on newer Model 3 vehicles. The agency told CR it made this change after Tesla briefed the agency on production changes due to the transition to Tesla Vision from radar. More recently, NHTSA told us it indicates that these features are available only when it has verified the technology internally, or if the vehicle manufacturer reports that it meets NHTSA’s performance criteria. As of today, NHTSA’s website still indicates that FCW and the two AEB functions are not available but now says LDW comes standard on the Model 3. 

Although it isn’t common, this isn’t the first time a vehicle has lost or regained a performance designation from CR or the IIHS. In recent years, Ford, Hyundai, Fiat, Toyota, Volkswagen, and others have updated vehicles outside of major redesigns to improve their safety scores.

However, the IIHS and NHTSA usually change their scores after a new test or evaluation is introduced, or after a car is redesigned for a new model year. Unlike other automakers, Tesla doesn’t adhere to traditional model-year updates. Instead, Tesla makes changes during production runs and often sends out software updates that change how a vehicle behaves. For instance, some Tesla Model X vehicles were sold without active AEB in 2016, a problem that took six months for Tesla to rectify through a software update. And in 2018, some owners lost AEB for more than a day after a software update.


Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.