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A dead battery is a common and serious problem. At a minimum it takes time to jump-start the car. But oftentimes a second car is unavailable, or there's no jumper cables, or a serial killer is chasing you and pounding on your window.

So why don't vehicles come with some alternate way of starting the engine?

Wikipedia says that the original hand-cranks worked but were inconvenient and dangerous for various reasons. I suspect that with modern engineering these handcranks could become safe, through the use of clutches and today's better-behaved engines.

There's also a spring starter for which, Wikipedia points out, "the most common application being backup starting system on seagoing vessels."

So with the constant push for reliability and features, why have I never seen a car that doesn't rely 100% on a battery to start? Imagine the marketing: "Never again be stranded with a dead battery!" Should be a hit.

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    Wow, spring starter looks like a cool thing, especially with the provision to rotate the engine for maintenance. Mind you, in the modern auto there would be no place to put it or have access to. Marine, backup EG, and industrial engines are definitely more suitable for it, given the all around access. – theUg Feb 13 '13 at 19:41
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    Chances are: if you're out at sea and your starter dies you are in much more trouble than if you're in a car on the ground. – Sponge Bob Feb 14 '13 at 17:15
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    A hand crank on a modern car wouldnt/couldnt work. On old cars like a model T it was feasable, but with modern compression ratios you couldnt turn it by hand anywhere near the speed required, and you also wouldnt be able to generate enough of a spark to start the engine. (If you've ever worked on an engine and had to rotate it to TDC for timing, you would know what I mean) – Matt Bear Feb 19 '13 at 20:04
  • My old motorcycle (1978 Honda CB400T2) had kick start, electric start, and could be push-started at walking speed. I kept riding for weeks after my battery died - no big deal. – Jay Bazuzi Feb 19 '13 at 20:47
  • @MattBear: I beg to differ. I've started my engine by hand-cranking it plenty times, using the transmission and wheel as the crank. Of course it's not enough to power the alternator and generate the spark, but as long as the battery has at least enough charge to generate a spark, it works fine. – R.. Jul 3 '13 at 23:01

12 Answers 12

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As I’ve read, alternative starting systems nowadays used mostly in commercial, industrial and emergency applications, where it is mission-critical to get it started, such as back-up power generator in the hospital, fire pump on an oil rig, or a life boat. Redundancy is required in some of these situations; in others there is no other option even. There are commercial lorries, mining, quarry and construction vehicles, or generators in remote areas where the only system to start an engine would be the air (pneumatic) or hydraulic start. It is a lot easier to find compressed air than to find reliable electricity to charge a battery in some underdeveloped countries.

Most of those are, of course, are powered by Diesel engines, and do not even need electricity to operate, so some of the vehicles or machines would not even have a battery at all. And, by the way, there are, as I’ve read, hand crank systems on some of those: it is possible to use compression-release mechanism to make it easy to spin the engine by hand to get the flywheel going, then dis-engage CR, and kinetic energy stored in the flywheel should be enough to get it started.

On the other side of the spectrum would be open-wheel race cars (Formulas, Indy, possibly others, such as Le Mans or GT) that do not even have on-board starting system and need to have an external air- or electric start device to get going. Obviously, this is done to save weight — this way they do not need relatively heavy starter motor, and they can get away with much smaller battery which is used more as a current stabilizer rather than storage.

As for regular automobiles, there are several factors that prevent manufacturers from using redundant starting systems:

  • First of all, regular electric start is pretty reliable. All of us experience dead battery now and again, but mostly due to our own negligence. And in between, there are hundreds, if not thousands, starts the system handles without mechanical failure of the starter motor or natural degradation of the battery.

  • Secondly, although it is not high-performance racing application, the considerations of weight and cost still play an important role.

  • Modern cars use internal space rather efficiently, and there simply not many options to put another component, and have an easy access to it.

There are after-market systems allowing for that extra reliability for bigger utility vehicles like pick-ups for farmers or loggers and the like, but then again, that qualifies it as industrial application, because no one but Americans use those for getting to the office or snatching some milk in a neighbourhood shop.

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    in old cars with manual crank handles engines were mounted inline with the car, most modern cars outside of USA use transverse engines, which would complicate the linkages required for a crank handle. – Mauro Feb 15 '13 at 12:20
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    Worth considering that most very modern cars have so much electronics that a battery too dead to crank it over is likely to be too dead to power the ECU's required to run the engine. In the old days of carbs & points or purely mechanical diesels, if you could spin it over that was likely all you needed. These days, nothing happens without a lot of computers agreeing that it should - not least the immobiliser system. – John U Sep 28 '16 at 16:28
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    @JohnU I always assumed that the electronics used a tiny amount of power compared to the starter ... is that not so? – SusanW Apr 11 '17 at 15:35
  • @SusanW - The starter is still a far greater load, but a vehicle with a dead flat battery may not self-sustain purely because of the amount of (perhaps non-essential) electronics trying to spring into life, and/or deciding not to play below certain battery voltages. Ignoring that, the EFI system can easily use more power than a carb & points or mechanical diesel injection system. – John U Apr 11 '17 at 15:59
  • The early Cat dozers had a small donkey gas engine which was used to start the diesel, built right onto the back of them. It was pull started. Its magneto was the only electrical thing on the entire dozer. Aside from having a clutch drive to spin the diesel, it also was water cooled and shared cooling water with the diesel, so letting it run for awhile would warm the diesel. Early Cats also had no hydraulics, it was done with clutches and a small clutched PTO with cable rigging to raise and lower the blade. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 18 '17 at 3:37
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Mine has just such a fancy emergency backup starting device. It's called a "manual transmission". Push starts great with a dead battery. Only downside would be the serial killer chasing me, and well, that's what they make concealed weapons licenses for...

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    In situations where you can't push (like parallel parking), you can also jack up one wheel and rotate the engine manually by turning the wheel while the transmission is in gear. One convenient way to do this is with a socket wrench (with appropriate extension and bar) on the hub nut but you can also do it by hand. It's unlikely to work though if the battery voltage is too low to get a spark. – R.. Feb 15 '13 at 4:32
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First, sorry for my bad English.

I think it is because a modern battery is more reliable, from the car manufacturer's point-of-view, so they remove the unneeded crank system alternative.

Dead batteries may be very common -- yes, it got me multiple times on my old car -- but if you are maintaining your car regularly as the manufacturer suggests, you might (be forced to) replace the new one before it dies.

Battery technology seems to be advancing so much these days, some of them might be used in cars in the near future if it's really needed.

  • Exactly. I replaced my battery as soon as I start having trouble with turning the car on... Not once I find out it is completely dead. Costco is a great place to go for auto batteries if you're on a budget. – Sponge Bob Feb 14 '13 at 17:13
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If you really wanted to avoid dead battery situations, the best solution is probably a second, isolated battery. Charge both batteries off the alternator, but disconnect the starting battery (via a relay) except when the alternator is running or the key is being turned. It's really stupid that cars are designed such that using non-essential accessories can run down the power needed to start the vehicle.

  • This is actually really common in vehicles with aftermarket sound systems(or diesels). It's an isolated battery that on a relay that only switches on when a certain ammount of amperage(starting amps) is being pulled. – Matt Bear Feb 19 '13 at 20:00
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The reality is that it wouldn't actually be a good selling point. There's no use adding cost and weight to a normal every-day car when it's easy to keep your battery well-maintained and carry a $10 starter cable just incase.

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Personally, I just carry around a small starter battery kit in case of battery failure.

Something like this:

http://www.walmart.com/ip/Schumacher-XP400-Jump-Starter/15140202

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I drive a Land Rover, it has provision for a starting handle.

You'd be surprised how late they retained this, even on Range Rovers (classic) you can see the hole in the centre of the front bumper for the starting handle.

Anyway, most cars (with manual transmission at least) you can bump-start, which can't be done so easily with static machinery or boats ;) and car batteries & jump-leads are cheap & portable.

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Some cars employ a two-battery electrical system. This comprises of:

  • a dedicated battery to supply the starting system
  • a general-purpose battery to power the rest of the vehicle's electrics

Now it might seem counter-intuitive to add complexity, there are some benefits to having a setup like this.

The one relevant to this question is that when the starter battery begins to weaken the control unit for starting the vehicle can switch over to the other battery.

From the Bosch Automotive Handbook:

If there is no charge in the general-purpose battery, the control unit is capable of provisionally connecting both vehicle electrical systems. This means that the vehicle electrical system can be sustained using the fully-charged starter battery. In another possible configuration, the control unit for the starting operation would connect only the start-related consumers to whichever batter was fully charged.

  • Some cars (Toyota Land Cruiser I know for sure) have two batteries which are momentarily connected in series to give 24v when cranking, dropping back to 12v when running. I've no idea of the rationale behind this, there are a number of possible reasons but none seems very compelling to me. – John U Sep 28 '16 at 16:25
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The manual crank starter of days gone by was dangerous for the operator.

Also, when the electric starter began to become widespread, better batteries became a necessity, and I read somewhere that battery manufacturers gave a deal to car makers under the condition that they removed the hand-crank. The idea was, from a marketing point of view, if you have a reliable electrical starter with a reliable battery, what do you need a hand crank for?

Finally, because of the logistics of it, a hand-crank can only be installed in front of the car with a longitudinally-mounted engine. Transverse-mounted engines have become very common by now.

  • Depends, a competently designed crank could be made, and certainly was by the 1940s. Today you could do an overrunning clutch, but even before WWII they were safety designed, with ratchet-tooth engagement so if the engine overruns the crank, it just pushes it out a little. One engine I worked with even had bidirectional cranking (2-cycle), just one ratchet tooth each direction, worked fine 99% of the time. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 18 '17 at 3:46
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The old Vauxhall Viva I owned when I was a student regularly suffered starter motor failure, and it was a difficult component to replace because the mechanic had to move the engine out of the way.

I found that the simplest and cheapest solution was to park on the top of hills, and then bump-start it. I had the idle speed adjusted up so it wouldn't stall easily, and I survived with that for over a year. It didn't take much of a slope - most car parks have a slight slope, and you get really good at spotting the higher ground.

Who needs mechanisms when you have geography?

  • Try doing that in northern Indiana. Hills are few and far between. – Wyatt8740 Apr 18 '18 at 22:02
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    @Wyatt8740 Oh dear. But don't forget you could always up-sticks and relocate to somewhere hillier... Or even just make the effort to only park in the places where there are hills. People would admire you for your discerning selectivity: "nope, I don't go there - no hills!" .. "wow, I never thought of that! yeah, let's go somewhere where there are hills!". Sort of thing :-) – SusanW Apr 30 '18 at 21:02
  • I'd love to move. Unfortunately I can't afford to with college debt. But that car that wouldn't crank is out of my hair now - driving a much nicer and cleaner Volvo 240. – Wyatt8740 May 1 '18 at 4:36
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I'll tell you why. Because a car manufacturer who tries to save $30 by not installing a rear-window wiper is not going to spend $100 to fit a new component to the engine.

Although, an industrious person may make a neat sum of money by making such a spring-loaded mechanical starter.

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If you are really worried about it, consider a manual transmission as you can potentially push start it.

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