Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Faraday Cage and Circuit Disconnect
Name: Don
Status: Student
Grade: 9-12
Location: CT
Country: United States
Date: Fall 2009

If an automobile has been struck by a hot electrical wire and then proceeds to roll away clear from the wire, is it possible that the car body continues to hold a charge and needs to be discharged before someone can actually touch it without fear of getting shocked?

Hi Don

I believe the answer is a definite maybe. There are a couple of things going on here. First, the power line is carrying an alternating potential that peaks 120 times a second (60 Hz), so it depends when the wire disconnects. Secondly, assuming there is no direct discharge from the car to the earth, the car will act as one side of a capacitor with respect to the earth, so the car will hold a charge proportional to the potential on the car and its capacitance. Because there are so many environmental factors that are also present that determine conductivity to the ground, it is likely that any charge will bleed off by itself. Hope this helps.

Bob Froehlich

Certainly the car body would continue to hold a charge for some time after being charged up, but the capacitance of a car is very small -- maybe a few hundred picofarads. You could safely discharge it by touching it with your finger.

Tim Mooney

Hi Don

Intuitive question. I think it is possible for a car to hold a Faraday Cage effect charge after contact with a hot electric wire, But I have never heard of it happening to any serious extent. Overall, it depends on how well the tires insulate the charged car from the ground. You do experience that effect on cold, dry winter days when you stick your key in the door lock of a car and a small arc of electricity crosses between the key and the car.

Here is another more common example.

First, Potential difference (voltage) is not always measured from earth ground. In aircraft, the fuselage is used as the common voltage ground and is referenced as 0 Volts. Then any circuits that need voltage take the voltage from the aircraft's generators referenced to the fuselage, regardless of the actual voltage of the fuselage above earth ground.

When a Navy helicopter delivers cargo to a ship by hanging a cable over the ship, the ship's crewman wears a special glove that has a cable in it that runs to the deck in case the helicopter's fuselage is a couple of volts above earth ground, represented at the ship's deck. If the crewman does not wear the glove, the crewman is in danger of receiving a shock.

On the trailing edge of the wings of fixed wing aircraft you will find a black cable with a frayed end at the very tip of the wing. The purpose of those frayed ends are to discharge the voltage potential difference between the aircraft and earth ground so the shock when the aircraft lands is not too large.

Sincere regards,
Mike Stewart

That is an interesting question. We all have heard that a steel car body provides protection to the occupants if an electric wire falls onto it, or even (perhaps) if lightning strikes it. That is because the car body will conduct electricity through the body and frame, around the outside of the occupants, and the occupants will not be harmed. That seems to be true. The question is whether the car body is able to hold some electric charge after being hit from a falling wire. If an object has some capacitance, and is electrically insulated, then it has the ability to hold an electric charge. The car's body can indeed be a capacitor and can hold an electric charge on its surface, much like a human can. In fact, when getting out of a car, it is sometimes possible for a person to receive a startling shock when the person touches a metal part of the door. So both the human body and the car have capacitance! Thus a car that is charged by an electric wire and rolls away may also be able to give a shock, but it would not be dangerous. One thing to consider is that the electricity in utility power is alternating, and reverses polarity 120 times each second. So it is not clear what polarity the car would have after it rolled away, or if the polarity would actually be near zero.

Robert Erck

Click here to return to the Engineering Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory