Safety Warning: The Model S rear seats

Safety Warning: The Model S rear seats

The last few months have been an adventure, I have reserved my Model S, completed a test drive and heard Elon Musks plans and visions for the future Tesla owners in Norway. I've read every article there is to read and all the news and updates daily. There have been exciting times for one that usually runs around in a Toyota Avensis 1.6 and who has chosen to make the quantum leap up to a Tesla Model S: EV, performance, space for the whole family and premium design ... I've been so excited!

I have a brother in law whose had the same experience. Last week we wanted to visit the Tesla Center at Alnabru and spend some time investigating the car thoroughly. Coincidentally, one of the first things we did was to put ourselves in the rear seats. My brother in law works as an emergency medical/ doctor at the Ullevaal Hospital in Oslo. He regularly treats pacients who have been victims of car accidents and experiences the impact of these enormous powers on the human body. Concerning cars, he is undoubtedly very focused on safety. So he instinctively and immediately reacted on the rear seating design of the Model S. A person aged 12-13 years, maybe 150 centimeters/ 4.9 feet tall, has no support for neck and head and will also slam his head in the supporting structures of the inner roof. No doubt this will be with a potentially fatal or very harmful outcome. The rear seat has three minimal elevations in the seatrest intended for support of the head and they can not be regulated. It reminds me of rear seats in cars of the 50s and 60s. So actually, this car is not suitable for more than two adults in front and strictly children in the back. Accordingly, I have serious concerns about letting adults sit in the backseat when driving long distances at greater speed.

American tests show that the car is at a high level of safety ( safety for rear seat passengers is hardly taken into account ), European motor journalists love it and the car is on everyone's lips. Is there really no other comments on this? Is the car otherwise so alluring that we are willing to ignore basic security flaws? If Tesla has compromised on this, in what other areas can we expect similar compromises?

It is with mixed emotions that I cancel my reservation. The Model S doesn't seem to me as a sustainable product yet when it comes to safety for all occupants. Fortunately Model X seems much better - I decide to wait for it!

It is with sincere concern for Tesla that I write this - and with the desire that they may succeed!

CarstenM | 14. April 2013

I agree with your concerns. Quite a few users of the German Tesla forum share your assessment and have asked tough questions to Tesla staff concerning this safety aspect, some of them won't buy Model S as long as this is not addressed by Tesla.

Since Tesla has proved they are listening to our ideas, I think all of us should let Tesla know we think their back seats could be better. I'm pretty confident that sooner or later they'll redesign the back seats.

I have ordered my S already nonetheless.

oleandre | 14. April 2013

"A person aged 12-13 years, maybe 150 centimeters/ 4.9 feet tall..." And taller, of course...

jat | 14. April 2013

Or you could just make the rear headrests tall and adjustable, where they block the driver's vision and wind up getting removed -- such as my wife did when she started driving the LEAF.

I'm not sure why you would be more worried about driving at speed -- if there is an issue with insufficiently tall headrests, it would be in the case of a rear collision. If you are driving on the highway, the speed difference with some car hitting you in the rear is not likely to be as high as if you are sitting stopped at traffic light and someone isn't paying attention. So, if you are worried, *that* is where you should be worried -- not at high speeds where the likely accelerations come from hitting things and rapidly slowing you down, throwing you forward not back.

TS | 14. April 2013

Honest feedback about safety is something I have missed in this forum. Thanks.
I had some of the same feeling when I tried the rear seats. My opinion is that the car is built for 2 adults , and kids.
Its not a deal breaker for me, but if I dont see a EuroNcap test result soon, I will not finalize..

Lets hope the EU version gets "normal" seats with better side support and adjustable active headrests
At least on the front seats..
The seats is also to hard, and this might also cause more injuries in collisions when your body slams back into it.
New science proves this.

gasnomo | 14. April 2013

Completely agree, I noticed this when my 8 year old is in a booster seat in the rear seat...the three back headrests should absolutely be adjustable. | 14. April 2013

It doesn't bother me, but then rarely is anyone in the back seat!

It seems many cars in the US that offer adjustable rear headrests, find them quickly removed since they block the rear view, which seems like an even poorer safety situation. Having fixed headrests could be even safer in general if they can't be removed.

Not sure why Europeans would be any different in general. I do like it when users actually keep the safety equipment they paid for. Glad to see a those here are looking at safety and how to maximize it.

Keep in mind the MS is dramatically better at protecting the occupants than most other cars on the market. With a huge front and rear crumple zones, I feel a lot safer than ICE cars with a engine that's going to be joining me in an accident. The rear seat headrest issue (if an issue) seems a lot less of a worry.

DTsea | 14. April 2013

+1 teslatap. rear visibility and collision avoidance~ active safety~ is better than passive safety.

the back roofline is low so if i sy
it where my head misses roof, rear headrest is at the right spot. i do wish the rear roofline was a couoke inches higher but i love the car. i am glad i bought it.

stimeygee | 14. April 2013

I'm confused by this. Apologies since I seem to be the only one but - what exactly is the issue? That the headrests in the second row seats (not the rear facing child seats) are too low for an adult/teenager?

How are other cars different? Because they have adjustable headrests in the rear? And do people in the rear seats often end up adjusting those headrests? I never thought about headrests on way or a other, before. I've certainly never adjusted a read seat headrest for anything other than comfort, if at all.

Is this not something that would show up in standard US safety testing?

Thanks for helping me understand.

Carefree | 14. April 2013

This whole issue is blown way out of proportion. Some people are overly cautious and probably afraid to walk out their front door in the morning.

brandtlings | 14. April 2013

I Read this thread and had to go out and sit in the back seat of my S... I am 6'5" tall so my head makes contact with the headliner when I sit up straight, at the same time the headrest hits the back of my head over the occipital cortex which is approximately the balance point of the mass of my head... The perfect position to support the head in the event of an accident (from the rear which is the primary purpose of a headrest). If the head is supported higher or lower it will create greater stresses on the neck than if it is supported at the midpoint. As I slouch down (simulating a shorter person) the contact point on my head remains much the same. Seems to me the engineers at Tesla got it right!

As for the head making contact with the sides of the roof, it is better to have a close contact with it than have room for your head to accelerate before it hits... Think getting hit by a hammer from one inch as opposed to a hammer swung over a larger distance.

In my opinion there is no issue here. I would like to hear the opinion of someone from the NHTSA, or with experience in design of safe cars... I'm guessing Tesla has some of them on it's design team.

Crow | 14. April 2013

I think we should just let the NTSB do their jobs.

skymaster | 14. April 2013

Wow, What gives? I was under the impression that the model S was the safest car on the planet. I will take my chances for my family with the Model S,(and not let any tall folks ride in the back). But give up my model S, not a remote chance!!!

HenryT2 | 15. April 2013

Seems like, for the 2 front passengers and children in the back, the Model S is probably one of the safer sedans out there. However, as the Norwegian gentleman has pointed out, I don't think the US has strict safety standards or testing for rear seat passengers. And judging by the number of cars that don't even satisfy the 2 passenger requirement for HOV or car pool lanes, I imagine that's going to be more than adequate 99% of the time. Here in the US, we don't actually car pool much, nor do we have occasion to have adults in the back seat very often.

It's entirely possible that the Norwegian poster is correct. And, it's entirely possible that there are many other American cars on the road with the same defect that are simply going unnoticed. I'd prefer the back seats to be as safe as possible. As comfortable too, as I've already commented on this forum in the past about the less than luxury class comfort of the back seasts. But I'm certainly not going to give up my Model S while I wait for that to happen.

Sazzadul | 15. April 2013

I totally agree with the initiator of this post. I actually had a post in this forum regarding the rear seat and comfort(its too low for adults).

I have now decided not to go for a MS (unless they fix the rear seat).

May be Model X will be a better choice for me but the falcon wings seem to be so impractical.

jack | 15. April 2013

Hi all,

Just to support the original initiator of the post; I agree with his observations. Through a call with Tesla, I also addressed several security issues.
The first is the 'fixed' headrest at the front seats. I am 189cm, which is not that tall, but seem to have a long body. So headrests have always been a problem with me. Only my BMW's and a Mercedes E I had before were sufficient.
The second issue had to do with the headrests in the back. Now, funny enough on the interior pictures on the Tesla site these headrests seem adjustable...... (but they were not when I sat in the car earlier).
The third security question was about ISOFIX adapters in the backseat for children seats.

The response I got from Tesla was that I was not the first person complaining about these issue's.
And they told me that Tesla is looking for solutions. They even stated that the Model S would not be certified for the European market if they would keep it in the US version.

As a final remark, I would like to say that it is everybody's personal right to have an opinion on car safety, but if you were ever involved in a serious car accident or professionally have to deal with the victims (especially children) you get a little bid fanatic about it :-)

Ciao; Jack

ChristianG | 15. April 2013

The Model S is a performance car, therefore the rear seats are not ment for tall people. With 6'3 I'd also hit the roof first with whatever good ar bad that will do to me. Also the design of the car does have a really bad view backwards. That's why the back camera comes standard. So adjustable headrests will have not a great effect on visability and would make it much safer for medium sized people...

Flaninacupboard | 15. April 2013

I seem to recall in an E-Class taxi that the rear headrests hinged up automatically when the seat was occupied, then disappeared when you got out. seems a good solution.

I would concurr with others, I am missing one rear headrest in my car (took it out to fold the seats down, never put it back) and I don't think i've ever bothered to adjust one when sitting in the back of a car.

oleandre | 15. April 2013

Thank you for your answers and comments! Here are my reflections and further questions:

stimyg wrote:
«Is this not something that would show up in standard US safety testing?»

My comment: If some American owners could update me on test results regarding passengers in the back seat, I would greatly appreciate it. wrote:
«It seems many cars in the US that offer adjustable rear headrests, find them quickly removed since they block the rear view, which seems like an even poorer safety situation. Having fixed headrests could be even safer in general if they can't be removed.»

My comment: Well, you might be right. However, I think you're changing the premise of this discussion. My focus is what kind of product is Tesla handing over to their customers - not what people decide to do on their own risk. The condition must be proper use of the equipment. A child restraint may also be a death trap if not used properly. I am not satisfied with an solution which is "safer in general" - it should be the best in every way.
«if there is an issue with insufficiently tall headrests, it would be in the case of a rear collision»

My comment: I totally agree. I am 188cm / 6'2 tall. Sitting in the back seats and in case of rear collision, the headrests would not do their intended job. In the Oslo test car, not even making a movement from the seat, I was able to bend my neck backwards, hitting the roof structure behind my head. Headrests also have an important function in conjunction with front and side impacts, since they should provide support when the body is «thrown back» into the seat by the seatbelt.

brandtlings@gma... wrote: 
«The perfect position to support the head in the event of an accident (from the rear which is the primary purpose of a headrest). If the head is supported higher or lower it will create greater stresses on the neck than if it is supported at the midpoint. As I slouch down (simulating a shorter person) the contact point on my head remains much the same. Seems to me the engineers at Tesla got it right!
As for the head making contact with the sides of the roof, it is better to have a close contact with it than have room for your head to accelerate before it hits... Think getting hit by a hammer from one inch as opposed to a hammer swung over a larger distance.»

My comment: I'm no expert in this area, but let me make a purely logical reasoning. Modern cars are equipped with headrests and curtain airbags. The simple intention is that the head should hit a material that reduces injuries. The Model S has a lower cabin than comparable sedans and adults will find that their head will hit something hard, namely the roofstructures behind and next to the head. A low headrest does not make the situation better. I've seen some Model S images where headrests differ from those you'll see in the Norwegian test car. But as far as I know, American owners can confirm that these are not adjustable? I am aware that in many smaller and poorer cars, you cannot expect good conditions in terms of safety in the back seat, your head will hit hard materials. But we are talking about "the best car in the world ... And, as Tesla themselves put it: It is not just a performance car, but intended as a family car. "Your number one car". Well, in my opinion it's just not good enough. Actually, we shouldn't be having this discussion at all if the car, from a safety point of view, was good enough.

markapeterman | 15. April 2013

I carry adults in the rear seats <<1% of the time.
The model S is a poor choice for you if this is a common thing for you. The pano roof makes it more comfortable, but no more safe.
My last car had even smaller non adjustable rear headrests.
Of the things I am concerned with in a vehicle this is near the bottom. I think the frunk crumple zone/rigid battery pack makes the S much safer than most cars for rear or front collisions. (see Honda vs. Tesla thread)

jat | 15. April 2013

@oleanadre - so if you think it isn't good enough, you are perfectly safe now that you have cancelled your reservation. I have heard that you can buy armored vehicles - those should protect you from most accidents.

For me, I am very happy with my Model S and I think it is far safer than any vehicle I have owned.

oleandre | 15. April 2013


Since the back seats are carrying the people I love the most, whether it's my teenage children, my parents or even my mother in law (!), I won't compromise on this. The car doesnt't have to be armored, I'll be satisfied with a safety level that occurs in most sedans of today, whether it's Japaneese, American or German. You are probably right; the Model S is one of the safest cars on earth, except for those sitting in the back seat.

Jolinar | 15. April 2013

Somwhere I read that Model S will have modified seats for EU market. I'm not sure if they thought rear or front seats... | 15. April 2013

@oleandre "Model S is one of the safest cars on earth, except for those sitting in the back seat."

Not sure I agree about the back seat (but you could be right). I think the much higher risk for rear passengers is getting a cabin intrusion from another object (car, tree, etc.). Here is where I think the MS is far safer than other sedans. So what you may be saying is under some specific type of low speed crash event the rear seat occupants might be less safe than some other car due to whiplash effects. Of course many cars may be far riskier for the back seat than the MS in all crash events - we really don't know.

I guess we'll be unable to say more until some type of rear-seat crash testing is done, but I'm not aware of any such tests done for the US market. Perhaps Europe has required tests for this. That said, if the rear seat low-speed crash safety is your #1 concern, and you don't have any more data, and don't care about the front passengers, I guess you better go with a car that has the published rear seat crash data. I don't think we'll see data, good or bad, for the MS for quite a while.

Crow | 15. April 2013

If anyone here is an expert in auto safety and has Model S crash test data, please speak up. If not, this thread is long on uninformed opinion and short on facts.

David Trushin | 15. April 2013

I agree with Brandtling. I am 6 foot exactly and if I sit tall in the back seat my head also touched the headliner. I don't plan on sitting in the back of the car, but if I did, I would do the same thing that I do when I sit in the back seat of a Camry: I slide my butt forward so I don't hit the roof (which it does in a Camry). when in that position, maybe an inch or two lower than my 6 feet, the headrest supports my head well. I don't see the issue unless the OP is thinking of an oblique crash. In that case, you will probably miss the headrest altogether. I found the greater danger was from headrest that block rear vision. I had that in my Trailblazer. The were always folded doen, unless I had passengers. Then the passengers blocked my rear vision.

PorfirioR | 15. April 2013

I intend to drive mine from the front seat (driver side).

GLO | 15. April 2013

I guess the thing to look at is the couple of accidents that have occurred to date. One T-bone in Seattle, the head on collision in Southern Cal. and one other head on collision. So far, the car has performed incredibly well. These concerns are appropriate but nothing to date has suggested the safety feature of the car are not doing their job but I agree, we need to watch for actual data to validate this concern.

negarholger | 15. April 2013

@oleandre - in your perception what car has safe back seats? An example would help the discussion.

Brian H | 16. April 2013

The crash dummies didn't complain.

oleandre | 16. April 2013

Yes, but only the head restraints in front, I'm afraid...

Gafanhoto | 16. April 2013

Dear oleandre,
thank you for bringing up this toping again. I followed the discussion with interest. I fully agree with the observation of your brother in law. I wrote several emails to Tesla product specialties asking if there is a chance to fix the rear seat headrests before EU delivery start. The response was always how super safe the MS without cater to the back seat passengers. From information have seen so far, there is really a lack of requirements in safety testing for back seats. Most of the tests are performed with children seats in the back.
For me it is also a deal breaker not having real protective head rest at the rear seats. Unfortunately the Model X does not fit to my garage. I also struggle with the castellation of my MS reservation, because this would have beed the first electric car I would have considered as the one car in the family, all other EV just work as a second car.

Tesla and all,
regardless of different safety perception in different cultures, countries or individuals that care less on adults or people above 150cm on the back seat. It is relevant for at least some of the potential or present reservation holders of a MS to have a protective headrests on the rear seats, best would be adjustable. There were very early prototype MS showing adjustable head rests so it should not be a magic change to the MS to satisfy those customers care about the safety of adults on the back seat.
Latest updates from Tesla are nice features and I would probably purchase them all but they are not safety relevant. Obviously those upgrades were prioritized higher than the back seat headrests - so i am glad to see this topic is back to the discussion - may be we can gain some momentum with this at least for EU version of MS.
thanks for the good discussion!

Brian H | 16. April 2013

wrong. There was no rear impact assessment of rear seat occupant safety.

oleandre | 16. April 2013

Could someone give me a link to photos, video or/ and reports from the MS crash test done in America? I don't know the name of the agency...

To Kleist: Since the Euroncap crash tests do not investigate the impact on passengers in the back seat, I shouldn't speculate too much in what cars are safe or not. But a as far as I know all cars sold in Norway like Volvo V70, VWs, BMWs, Toyotas, SUVs etc. ( probably also the rest of Europa ) - small or larger cars - are equipped with adjustable headrests. It seems to me that this is an absolute requirement. Hopefully, the European MS is equipped the same way.

jat | 16. April 2013

@oleandre - at this point, why do you care? You cancelled your reservation so you can go get a Volvo instead. I have heard they are so sturdy you can drive monster trucks over them (well, as long as you stick some extra 2x4s in there and you make other cuts on the other cars so they look like they crush more).

negarholger | 16. April 2013

@oleandre - I just checked our Benz... foldable, but not adjustable. On other newer cars in the parking lot I see many integrated same as MS. SUVs I didn't check.
There is no question that the MS back seats are small for an adult, I do not fit at all. I am only 6 feet, but sit very tall. In most current cars I do not have enough head room for me. E350, A6,A7, S80, etc I hit the roof in the front, rear even worse... I was so frustrated last year looking for a new car. For fun I sat in a MS in the showroom - guess what 2 inch clearance above my head in the front. Fortunately my potential passengers are relative small.

DonS | 16. April 2013

I find the back seat headrests are fine, and I'm 5'-11". My only concern would be using the child seats all the way in the back and getting rear ended. It is just not very far from the rear bumper to the seats.

Mark K | 17. April 2013

All my Mercedes sedans had foldable rear headrests with a dashboard button to drop them down for improved visibility. You had to manually lift them back up. This often meant they stayed down, which was equivalent to no headrest.

I specifically bought a Model S to protect my wife and kids.

Based on the known facts and science, I believe this car reduces their risk of injury more than any other car I can buy.

The MS crumple zones are superior to any other car - including S Class, BMW 7, and A8.

The advantage is not slight. The deceleration G-force on their bodies is far better - a 3X improvement in the MS due to the superior crumple zones. This is an inescapable consequence of the physics of the much longer crumple zone.

Over the next 3 years, I believe the accident data will prove this to be fact. The MS will show a materially lower overall fatality rate for front and rear passengers than any alternative sedan now available.

To focus on a narrow modality of rear headrest stress tests, at the expense of the far more damning test of front / rear high speed collisions - this is the extreme of penny-wise and pound-foolish reasoning.

If you care about safety, you put the greatest statistical risk of death at the top of the list.

For safety, the MS is clearly the best option to protect a family, by a wide margin.

Brian H | 17. April 2013

Don S;
The distance is deceptive. There is special reinforcement there. The jump seats may be the best protected parts of the car.

And I remind everyone again: high speed rear impacts are not only rare, they're quite hard to arrange.

Sazzadul | 17. April 2013

A recent article in Norwegian newspaper about Nissan Leaf

and the headline of the article in English is somewhat "Listened to customers - enhanced 100 "weak points" in electric car".

If you browse through the pictures you will see that The Nissan Leaf has adjustable headrest.

Now if Tesla follows in same footstep and keep enhancing the MS as it's doing currently it will gain a lot more market share in the EU and elsewhere too.

Gafanhoto | 17. April 2013

Even the tiny Renault Zoé has adjustable headrests on back seats, and it is only a 20k€ car (without battery). The Renault got a 5 star euro NCAP rating, but again no adult dummies on the back see - so the rating is not for as specifically good headrests on the back seats.

jat | 17. April 2013

@Sazzadul - the LEAF in the US has had adjustable rear headrests from the beginning. In fact, they are so big they block much of the rear view, to the point that my wife has removed them. Is that safer for a rear passenger? Now if they made the smaller like the Model S, that would have been a safety improvement, as they would actually stay in the car.

brandtlings | 17. April 2013

+1 Mark K

DTsea | 17. April 2013

dont forget total system safety. four components-

1. g forces on occupants, tesla better.
2. penetration ridk, tesla has very thick doors and fewer mechanical components, tesla better
3. FIRE! no gas tank , tesla FAR better
4. the rear seats..... when i sit in mine, if i position myself not to touch roof, headrest is in the right spot. tesla adequate.

other factors- collision avoidance, acceleration, handling, braking, reliability should all favor the Tesla.

oyvindhindhaug | 18. April 2013

I cannot understand the idea of attacking a person that are trying to improve the product we are all waiting for, or owning already.

When testing the Model S in Oslo, the rear headrests was a concern for me as well. Although I have finalized the car already, I would really want adjustable headrests in the back seats. Why on earth some of you would dislike this, I cannot understand. Giving the reasoning that someone would take them out? Well - if that someone would like to make the car less safe, so be it. It would increase the safety for all the others.

To please all, the design could easily be done so that when the headrests are in low position, they would be at the same hight as those in the car today. The people that want, could then adjust them to a higher position, thus increasing their safety at their own will.

oleandre | 18. April 2013

Thanks, for actually summarizing this discussion and simplifying my point: Teslas major concern should be every safety aspect of the car, including a detail like adjustable/ foldable ( and removable for some of you ) headrests. By not including this in the MS, Tesla are making a choice on behalf of it's costumers which should be given the costumers instead. I believe that Tesla has a very safe car in the MS, but unfortunately for me, they've missed one important spot. As simple, but crucial as that! | 18. April 2013

@ohh - Not sure I see any attacks - just lots of different viewpoints.

I think most of us MS owners think the MS is an extremely safe car - safer than most others available. Anyone who thinks differently is fine and they can buy another car with different risks that they perceive is better.

I do think there is quite a bit of disagreement that adjustable headrests make a car safer or not. I haven't heard anyone here that is a crash expert (and I'm not one either). If some 2-star crash rated econo box has adjustable rear head rests, does that make it better than the MS? The reasoning without any actual test results seems weird to me. And no one seems to have tested the rear seat crash worthiness effects to adults in any car (Europe or US).

All I can see is adjustable head rests might be safer or riskier for once specific kind of crash with a person of a specific height. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone actually adjust the rear headrests in a car that has them (and I've had a few). Does that mean they are at very high risk if the headrests are adjusted wrong? Perhaps fixed headrests are far safer, since they can't be set "wrong" or removed?

Anyway, safety is important, but short of driving a tank, there are always tradeoffs. You have to decide if some unquantifiable issue is far more important to you than those that are clearly identified - and then buy the car that makes sense to you. The MS is a great car, but if you feel you need a safer car (and I don't know that there is one), go for it!

Mark K | 18. April 2013


It's fine to nudge TM to add more features, like raising the rear headrests (while limiting how low they can go). That might help some people be even safer.

But if the spirit of your interest is to drive the overall safest car available, the Model S is it.

I am sure improvements will be made to MS / other cars over time, however waiting has its risks too.

If you're driving a car for the next 3 years that does not offer the significantly higher MS safety performance, you are increasing your risk.

Everything we choose logically must be ranked based on the alternatives.

In aggregate, I concluded that buying any other car, or waiting to replace my current Mercrdes cars, was higher risk.

So I bought my wife a Model S now.

For me, it was as simple as that.

Klaus | 18. April 2013

I owned a 2002 VW Jetta for 10 years before getting my Model S. It had adjustable rear seat headrests. And in those 10 years not a single passenger I carried in the rear (and there were quite a few) ever adjusted the headrest. In fact the only time those headrest even moved was when I had to remove them in order to lay the seats down.

I think this issue is overblown, so either live with it or buy something else.

I have also put nearly 8000 miles on my S and no rear seat passenger has complained or even brought up the subject of the headrest.

negarholger | 18. April 2013

Klaus - I never owned a car with adjustable rear seat head rests... So I have one question - did the car come with instructions how to adjust the rear head rests for best safety?
If yes, then the driver needs to adjust for every passengers the head rest ( passenger doesn't know the manual ) before starting any journey. And the question for oleandre is do the Norwegian drivers always adjust the rear head rest for every passenger before driving? Is this the common practice in Norway?
If the car doesn't come with instructions then how do we know what is the safest head rest height.