Owners Tips

Lesson Learned: Here’s What Happens When Lightning Strikes Your Car

Lightning is one of nature’s most powerful forces, and being struck by it is rarely a good time.

Thankfully, most of us will never experience being struck by lightning. In fact, a little common sense is all that’s needed to protect yourself from getting zapped by the heavens and experiencing one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular embodiments of very bad luck.

If you do find yourself stranded and at an elevated risk of electrocution from above, your car or truck can provide a safe place to wait out a lightning storm. It can protect you mainly because it’s made of a large metal cage that sits on four rubber tires, an arrangement that allows the electricity from a lightning strike to travel around the passenger cell and into the ground beneath.

Point of Contact

u/kayakingpro / Reddit

According to the US National Weather Service, a typical cloud-to-vehicle lightning strike will connect with your vehicle’s antenna or somewhere along the roofline. In this example from reddit, we see one possible outcome as it relates to an unlucky Dodge Ram: a nickel-sized burn mark created when a lightning bolt touched down on the rear corner of its roof, instantly vaporizing the nearby paint, primer, and metal.

One commenter suggested the truck’s owner have the damaged area preserved as-is with clearcoat, to show off the fantastic battle scar.

Still, lightning strikes are like people: they come in different shapes, sizes, and temperaments.

For instance, this GMC Sierra was the victim of a particularly nasty strike and suffered much more extensive damage to its exterior in the form of melted fender flares, scorched emblems, and a partially liquefied front bumper and headlight housing.

Beneath the Surface

u/Erebusknight / Reddit

Of course, when Mother Nature decides to chuck a billion-volt arc towards your vehicle at about 300,000 km/h, the resulting damage is rarely just cosmetic.

In addition to the obvious risk of harm to the vehicle’s exterior, ruinous damage is likely to any and all of the vehicle’s electrical components. Diagnosing widespread electrical system damage in a modern car or truck that’s suffered a lightning strike can be a prohibitively expensive job – and that’s before the need to replace boxes full of burned-out modules, connectors, wiring harnesses, and sensors, many of which are integrated within pricier assemblies.

In this post, we can see a collection of some of the electronic components fried by lightning in a customer car. The casualties included wheel speed sensors (built into the wheel hubs), assorted control modules, one of the most expensive parts of the vehicle’s ABS system, and the entire power steering rack.

u/Erebusknight / Reddit

Modern technology is wonderful stuff, though a little lightning strike is enough to decimate circuits both large and small. Even an indirect hit from a lightning strike near your vehicle can cause extensive damage.

Deep within many of the priciest parts of your vehicle are a multitude of bearings, which are at high risk of damage when lightning strikes. Bearings allow rotating parts in your engine, transmission, transfer case, differential, and other components to move smoothly. Their design, however, makes them susceptible to heavy damage when electrical currents arc across their bearing surfaces, which causes heat stress and even spot-welding that can ruin them in quick order.

Tires and rims are another common casualty of lightning strikes.

As planetary amounts of electricity course through these parts on their way to the ground, the air in the tires can explode, taking the tires with it. As an added bonus, the intense heat may structurally ruin the metal in your car’s wheels, weakening them and causing other damage.

What to Do if It Happens to You

u/jakeeeenator / Reddit

If your car or truck is struck by lightning, plan for the worst. If you’re inside the vehicle during the strike, stay there until things are safe, but be on high alert for signs of a fire. As you sit out the remaining storm, consider calling for a tow truck and setting up an appointment with your dealership for an assessment.

Call your insurance company, too. Though many variables exist, extensive electronic damage and some lightning-related bodywork can total even a newer vehicle.

Do you want to drive a vehicle that’s been repaired after a lightning strike? It depends.

Numerous owners and technicians that have repaired lightning-damaged cars report that they find themselves chasing down electrical gremlins for years to come.

By the way, the US National Weather Service says that the rubber tires on your car or truck won’t protect you from a lightning strike if you’re leaning on it in a thunderstorm, so get inside and stay there until it’s safe. Otherwise, be sure to put some popcorn kernels in your pockets for a healthy post-zap snack.