Can You Tow an Automatic Car in Neutral

Recently, we’ve heard car owners lamenting how costly it is to put their car back in shape after they had their car towed incorrectly, damaged and as a result lost a fortune.

People have resorted to towing for a few reasons, perhaps they are moving out of a city or their car broke down on the side of the road and in a worst case scenario, a breakdown in the middle of the road blocking the flow of traffic. There is nothing as embarrassing as this, right? Some car owners have ended up damaging their cars due to complete ignorance on how to safely go about it.

When it comes to towing vehicles with automatic transmission, you cannot afford to be careless about it. While a car with manual transmission has no problem with towing; you can just put it in neutral and it’s good to go. It doesn’t work like that for an automatic car because even when it is in neutral, its transmission does not disengage. And if towed in that state, its transmission will be forced to move in the wrong direction which could result in serious damage.

Some people hold the opinion that a car with an automatic transmission can be towed as long as you want, once it is in neutral the drive shaft is disconnected. Others say it can be pushed in neutral only for a short distance either onto a trailer or into a garage as this cannot generate heat or create friction strong enough to wear out the bushings and bearings.

As good as this may sound, do not tow an automatic car without reading through the owner’s manual. When you read through the owners’ manual, you get sincere directives to tow your model of car. In fact, other suggestions regarding towing should be put on hold before checking the car manual. Most of these manuals state clearly that “towing a car by just putting it in neutral is not recommended”.

What Happens When You Tow a Car With an Auto Transmission

Let’s take a look into a manual transmission first so that we can have a clear understanding of the difference between an auto and a manual transmission. In that way, you can learn why the two should be treated differently when it comes to towing.

A car with a manual transmission only comes with the basics namely; gears, output shaft, input shaft, hamsters and shifting forks. Oil splashes all over the place whenever the gears turn. Why? Because lubrication here is done by splashing.

For a car with auto transmission, the narrative changes. The transmission has oil passages, clutch linings, clutch drum, planetary gear assemblies and more hamsters. When two gears are in mesh, while one turns clockwise the other counterclockwise. To make both gears rotate in the same direction you can either add a third gear between them or use a small external gear inside an internal gear. You end up creating a basic planetary gear system when you put another gear in the centre and have it meshed with the external gear.

What you have now is a planetary system having the sun gear (in the centre) meshed with two external gears and meshed again to an internal ring gear. If you try locking any of these gears, you will be able to change the speed and the direction of the gears. With the system created, you could provide speed increase with a torque increase, speed increase with torque decrease, reverse direction, neutral (disconnected input shaft and output shaft) and direct drive. These are possible by the use of a brake band wrapped around the clutch drum, and actuated by hydraulic pressure. Basically, the automatic transmission functions on hydraulic pressure, even the lubrication of the gears is by hydraulic pressure.

So, if you are to follow the opinion of those who said “an automatic car can be towed in neutral within a short distance and low speed”, you should also consider the analogy of its transmission which shows that lubrication occurs only when the car engine is running. Therefore, if you just put the car in neutral and tow at that state you can easily get the internal severely damaged. You would remember that the output shaft is connected to the planetary gear and the governor is connected to the output shaft. Since this device helps in the shifting of the transmission and receives pressure from a pump which enables it to send low hydraulic pressure to the shifting solenoids, it implies that the absence of oil pressure would get the governor damaged. It makes more sense why automatic transmission easily gets damaged, right?

Safest Way to Tow a Vehicle With an Automatic Transmission

Whenever you need to tow an automatic car, ensure that a flatbed type of tow truck is used. The flatbed tow truck is the safest way to tow any vehicle. Towing your car with this type of tow truck will save you lots of trouble now and in the future. It doesn’t allow for the wheels of the car to turn but rather, allow them to stay put while being pulled. Contrary to when a tow truck hooks the vehicle up with the drive wheels on the ground, causing significant damage. When the drive wheels turn, the drive axles or drive shaft also turn, causing components inside the transmission to rotate. And for vehicles with automatic transmission which lubricates only when the engine is running, transmission could suffer significant damage if the engine is not running and the wheels turn the drive shaft or drive axles. The engine hereby produces the hydraulic pressure that helps in the pumping of fluid throughout the transmission for lubrication.

Back to the question, “can you tow an automatic car in neutral”? It’s a definite yes but only with the safest flatbed tow truck. Having an understanding of what to do prevents the unnecessary flushing of money down the drain. Use the recommended towing method in the car manual or better still, call for professional assistance. Some towing company might insist on towing your car in a way that contradicts the user’s manual recommendations, let them know they will be responsible for any damage.