Are hybrids safe to tow?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jun 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

I am an environmental regulator who lives and works in a semi-rural area in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. I have been really interested in getting one of the hybrid gas-electric Ford Escapes that are supposed to come out next year. Some other people I work with are in the same boat. We are all attracted to the idea of a rugged vehicle with enough ground clearance to handle local gravel roads, and that still gets really good gas mileage and has low emissions. But I heard somebody say that nobody wants to tow hybrid vehicles that have been in a crash or have broken down. Is this true? Are tow-truck drivers actually having problems with hydrogen emissions? Sparks? Shorts? -- Tom

RAY: Well, my brother has had problems with shorts. But it's usually after I give him an atomic wedgie.

TOM: The answer to your question is, we don't really know. There is obviously some danger. Gasoline-powered cars can be dangerous when they crash. And hybrids have both a gasoline engine AND a high-voltage electric motor.

RAY: But from what we've been able to learn, and from what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells us, the danger appears to be minimal.

For example, the Toyota Prius has a 274-volt electric motor in addition to a small gasoline engine. But in order to get a shock from the electric motor, you'd have to strip the casing off of both the positive and the negative wires and touch both of them at the same time. And since they run through an enclosed tunnel in the center of the car's floor and are both encased in bright orange, that's not something an emergency worker is going to do by accident.

TOM: And if the accident were severe enough to expose those wires, what are the chances that the electric motor would still be in a condition to be "on" and working? Probably low. So electrocution seems to be an unlikely scenario.

RAY: The other reason the wires are buried in a tunnel in the floor is so that if someone were using a Jaws of Life on a door or on the roof, he or she would be nowhere near any live wires.

TOM: As far as towing, there's really no danger at all to road-service folks. In the case of the Prius, the instructions for towing are the same as for any other front-wheel-drive car. And I suspect that will be true of the Ford Escape hybrid -- the same as for all-wheel-drive vehicles, in that case.

RAY: Jump-starting also poses no additional risks, as far as we know -- unless you count having a burly tow-truck driver snicker at you for being a Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugger. The Prius has a separate, standard 12-volt car battery that's used to start the gasoline engine, and that's the one you'd use to get a jump-start. Road-service folks would have no contact with the larger battery pack at all.

TOM: We know that Toyota makes these details available to emergency-response workers, and I'm sure Ford will, too. Chances are, there will be some folks who are nervous about working with these vehicles, but it'll probably be due more to unfamiliarity than to real danger.

RAY: But it's a good question, Tom. And if we hear of any problems that DO come up, we'll certainly let everybody know.

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