These days, most of us drive automatic vehicles. The convenience of the automatic transmission has made them so popular that many vehicle manufacturers do not even make some of their models in manual transmission.
Inevitably, due to a breakdown or a parking mishap, you will need to tow your automatic vehicle.
But is it safe to tow an automatic transmission? The answer may surprise you!
Cars with an automatic transmission system should not be towed or even pushed even when in neutral while the drive wheels are on the ground. Automatics use an engine-powered pump for lubrication. Towing or pushing an automatic while the engine is turned off causes the gears to run without lubrication, which can damage the engine.
You’ll also find the same information in the owner’s manual that states that if you own a car with an automatic gearbox, do not attempt to tow it.
If you, like me, were surprised to find out this information, read on for the whole scoop on what you need to know to safely tow your automatic vehicle.
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Why Can’t Automatic Transmission Vehicles Be Towed?
In most manual transmission automobiles, due to their gearboxes thoroughly being lubricated by oil in the inner system, there happens to be an abundance of lubrication throughout the gears and components.
This oil coating stays irrespective of whether the gears are being rotated or not.
Meaning that the system stays lubricated when the car is being towed or pushed etc.
But all is not as simple when we take into account the inner workings of an automatic transmission vehicle.
If the automatic car is being towed, with the drive wheels on the ground and turning, the shafts inside the vehicle will turn as will the other components of the gearbox.
But due to the way the system is designed, there won’t be any lubrication in the gearbox when this instance is happening.
Apart from any remnant residual oiling from the last drive, the vehicle went on, the system inside would be dry and incapable of preventing any wear and damage due to the movement of the gears without the presence of this lubrication.
So, to counter this issue, towing companies ensure that the drive wheels of the car are lifted with the usage of a flat-bed hauler and that the idler wheels are on the ground.
To counter this problem even further, some hook-type tow trucks have under-wheel carriages so that effectively none of your car’s wheels come into contact with the ground.
What happens if you tow an automatic car?
Inside the inner mechanisms of the automatic car’s gearbox, there is the presence of something called ATF or automatic transmission fluid.
ATF is utilized to oil the gears and prevents the system from being damaged due to friction and heating as the gears move.
The fluid inside undergoes heat transfer, and for handling this a radiator plus pump works in unison with a fan, to prevent the system from having extreme temperature rises inside.
If the fans and pump do not function properly, the rising temperatures and (in parallel) reducing the viscosity of the lubricant will begin to affect the seals and gears inside this machinery.
This can cause significant damage and will ultimately disrupt the functionality of your car if the limits mentioned in your owner’s manual are exceeded.
This is why mechanics and engineers advise keeping the driving wheels above-ground when towing such vehicles as if these gears are not engaged the automatic transmission shall stay safe when being towed or pushed.
Are automatic cars OK for towing caravans?
Yes, automatic vehicles can tow caravans but, it does significantly depend on the model and make of the vehicle being used.
It is even stated that they might be more advantageous than manual cars.
One of the reasons for this is due to the gearbox of a car with automatic transmission being heavier than that of a manual automobile.
In towing a caravan, there is a ratio that is considered to evaluate stability, this being the comparison of the weight of the car and then the caravan’s weight.
In the case of an automatic car, due to the higher weight as a result of the gearbox, we’ll have a higher ratio and with that shall come more stability.
Another reason is that the automatic cars have multiple speeds, even exceeding 7 or 8, which allow for the car’s computer to pick the optimal gear shift to tow, thus finding a good balance.
This also helps since, as compared to a manual, the automatic car does not require continuous usage of the clutch (lower wear) and the movements are finer.
You also end up consuming less fuel due to the computer-operated consumption patterns that the automatic car has employed.
With all of this, experts state that not only is the automatic automobile capable of towing a caravan, but it is also in fact a more comfortable alternative than manual.
How do you flat tow an automatic transmission?
If you ask any towing expert, or any towing company, what is the safest and possibly most efficient way of towing a vehicle and you’d probably hear them suggest the usage of a flat-bed tow truck.
This is a truck that comes with a system that does not allow the wheels of a car to turn when it is being pulled, they stay restricted, so be it manual or automatic – no damage shall occur to the transmission.
However, if the towing company does not have this type of truck and just manages to just hook the vehicle up and the drive wheels are on the ground, damage can occur to the gearbox.
As we have already learned, vehicles with automatic transmissions only keep the gearbox oiled when the engine of the car is running.
If the engine is turned off, or the car is not running, then the hydraulic pressure needed to lubricate the system is not present and the movement of the driving wheels, shafts, and axles of the car can end with it ultimately getting damaged.
So, what should one do when not having the luxury of a flatbed tow truck and just wanting to flat-tow a car with automatic transmission?
This means keeping all four wheels on the ground.
First, you have to ensure that the vehicle has the capability of having its transmission disconnected.
If this can happen, then you won’t have to worry about your transmission getting damaged as a result of the regular towing process.
This is called drive shaft disconnect which is used to uncouple the transmission, but, again most automatic cars do not come with this luxury.
If your automatic car is having its transmission oiled through its output shaft then it can be flat-towed without any problem, but if the vehicle is lubricated by the input shaft of the transmission then there might be an issue.
You would have to employ an auxiliary method to help in this conundrum, that being the introduction of a lubrication pump that can keep the cooling fluids in your gearbox flowing while the car gets towed.