How Auto Transport Works

Workers load Chrysler vehicles for transport in Illinois. See more pictures of trucks.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Convenience and efficiency drive the automobile transport business. It's somewhat ironic that automobiles are transported since they themselves are designed and built to provide transportation. Millions of vehicles, however, must be carried by truck, railroad or large ship every year for a variety of reasons.

New cars can't be driven to their respective dealerships because consumers would consider them used vehicles. More than 16.1 million new vehicles were sold in 2007. Most of these vehicles were manufactured in one of 71 assembly plants located throughout North America, with the rest imported from Europe or Asia. Regardless of origin, all had to be transported to 14,285 new-car dealers the U.S [source: Automotive News 2008 Dealer Data].


Consider the organizational demands of Ford Motor Co. in North America. Ford has 13 full production plants that produce 2.5 million vehicles. These cars, trucks and SUVs must be delivered to 4,000 dealers. These are not random deliveries, like a load of paper towels dropped off at a supermarket: Dealers order specific vehicles from each production plant, and the correct vehicles must be properly routed through multiple channels for a timely and damage-free delivery [source: Lowe].

Automakers spend billions of dollars to transport new vehicles to their dealers, and much of this cost is passed on to consumers through the destination charge. This fee is posted on the window sticker or Monroney label found on all new vehicles. The manufacturer's actual cost to transport a specific vehicle from the assembly plant to the dealer is not reflected in the destination charge. Automakers instead use proprietary formulas to arrive at a nationwide average for a particular product type. That means large pickups will cost more than small compact cars but the charge for that product is the same whether the consumer buys the vehicle one mile or 2,000 miles away from the assembly plant. Destination charges are only for auto transport within the United States. With vehicle pricing so competitive, automakers strive to keep the destination charges down because they are included in the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP).

Used cars are also transported throughout the country. In 2007, according to ADESA Analytical Services, almost 42 million used cars were sold in the United States. About one third were sold through franchise dealers, another third sold through 42,751 independent used-car dealers and the rest sold by private individuals. Used vehicles can make multiple trips on auto tr­ansporters as they are shipped to auctions or wholesale operations before going to a dealer [Source: Kontos].



Methods of Auto Transport

A car is loaded onto an English ship for export. This type of auto transport works well for foreign and exotic cars.
B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty Images

Vehicles can be transported by airplane, large ship, railroad car or truck.

While the president's limousines are airlifted by an Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo plane for all of his trips outside Washington, D.C., very few personal vehicles are transported by airplane. The exceptions may include exotic collector cars, racecars or one-of-a-kind concept vehicles scheduled to appear in a major auto show [Source: Havely].


Car-carrying ocean vessels have been built to hold up to 8,000­ vehicles, although most are designed to transport between 4,000 and 5,000 vehicles. These ships are used to bring foreign-built cars and trucks to the United States [source: Ships and Yacht Information]. For example, Toyota will import about 1.1 million vehicles to America from Japan in 2008. Toyota can charter or contract up to 30 ships to serve the American market. The automaker relies on five ports, two on the East Coast and three out West, where the vehicles are unloaded for transport to the dealer by truck or rail [source: Nelson].

Automakers estimate that 65-70 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. will travel on rail before an 18-wheeler auto transport tractor-trailer makes the final delivery to the dealer. The average distance for truck transport falls within a 250-mile radius of the pickup point. Longer routes then become more cost effective by rail. Of course, rail has its own limitations in destination locations and specialized equipment required to load and unload the vehicles [Sources: Nelson and Lowe].

We've learned how vehicles are carried from one destination to the next. On the following page, we'll look at the advantages and challenges of rail transport.



Going by Rail

Cars are loaded into rail cars at Ford production plant in Hapeville, Georgia.
Barry Williams/Getty Images

Although the majority of vehicles assembled in North America will travel by rail, autos collectively make up a very small percentage of overall rail-cargo transport in America. The Association of American Railroads reports motor vehicles made up just 1.6 percent of all railroad tonnage transported in 2007 [source: Association of American Railroads Class 1 Railroad Statistics].

Rail can move large numbers of vehicles efficiently. Specially designed rail cars called auto racks have two or three decks and can carry up to 20 vehicles, although the average is around 12 units. Two-deck auto racks usually carry trucks and large SUVs while three-deck auto racks carry cars. A dedicated auto-transport train with 70 auto racks can therefore carry more than 800 vehicles [source: CSX]. The average rail journey for a new car is about 1,300 miles [source: Lowe].


Vehicles are usually loaded onto auto racks at the assembly plant. In some situations, new vehicles are trucked to a loading dock at the rail yard. Special ramps allow the cars to be driven onto a railcar's decks. The cars are then secured with wheel chocks that are locked in place on the decks.

The latest design in auto racks is the Auto-Max, which was developed by the Honda and Greenbrier companies. The multi-level Auto-Max can hold up to 22 vehicles and support both cars and trucks by maximizing the space between the railcar's axles. Honda ordered a fleet of 400 Auto-Max railcars and says it has the highest rail-shipping rate of any automaker at 82 percent [Source: Honda].

Ever worry about a car falling off an auto-transport trailer that you're following on the highway? You can learn how to avoid that catastrophe on the next page.



Going by Truck

A load of cars leaves a Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Ill. Car makers log hundreds of millions of miles on the road deliver automobiles to dealerships across the country.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Every new vehicle at some point in its delivery to the dealership is carried by truck transport. It's not hard for automakers to roll up the mileage. Toyota alone averages 45 million total highway miles annually to deliver 2 million vehicles to nearly 1,500 Toyota and Lexus dealers across the country [source: Nelson].

Today's tractor-trailer auto transporters can carry up to 12 vehicles. The rigs are designed so that the tractor can support up to four vehicles and eight vehicles are placed on the double-deck trailer. The tractor-trailer rigs utilize hydraulically operated ramps. Each ramp can be lowered or raised to provide a smooth approach for loading or to clear vehicles under it when the trailer is fully loaded. The ramps can also be tilted to maximize the available space by tucking the end of one vehicle under another [source: Becker and Stone].


The transport driver is responsible for loading and unloading the rig. This operation has been compared to solving a 3D puzzle because of the time, vehicle size and scheduling issues that have to be juggled. Obviously, the first car loaded can't be the first car delivered, or else the entire trailer has to be unloaded. Some cars are backed onto the trailer while others are driven in nose first to maximize space or meet overhang requirements. Larger vehicles are usually on the top level. An experienced driver can load and secure a trailer of familiar, similar-sized vehicles in about 90 minutes. A load of different-sized vehicles can take up four hours [sources: Becker and Stone].

For the average motorist traveling behind an open-trailer auto transporter, the obvious fear is a vehicle falling off onto the highway. Officials say such an incident is extremely rare because each vehicle is secured at four locations. Chains and straps are used to secure vehicles to the trailer.

Most cars are manufactured with specific tie-down holes in the chassis or frame. Chains with specialized hooks to fit those holes are ratcheted tight to secure the vehicles to the transport trailer. The transporters even have specific requirements for the mounting angle of the chain from the vehicle to the trailer. Luxury and exotic automakers require less intrusive methods. The strap system utilizes high-strength straps that are positioned over each tire and tightened to the trailer, eliminating scratches or dents to the vehicle chassis.

Both methods are very secure. Transporters that have flipped in an accident have been known not to lose a single vehicle.

Jump into the next section to learn how to transport a vehicle --or hire someone to do it for you.


Personal Auto Transport

Each year, millions of vehicles are transported to meet personal needs, such as:

  • Families moving cross-country
  • Students going to college a long distance from home
  • "Snowbirds" moving to the Sun Belt for the winter
  • Corporate relocation

Some of these situations are one-time needs and the car owner will hire an auto-transport company. Phone directories and the Internet are filled with advertisements promoting a variety of transport companies and transport brokers. Consumers need to be aware of the difference. A company handles the actual pickup and delivery of the vehicle. A broker does the legwork and sells the job to one or more transport carriers.


There are pros and cons to working with both. Transport companies have more control over delivery time and assume more responsibility in the event of damage or an accident. On the other hand, brokers have access to more options for a quicker delivery. Consumers should double-check all references to help avoid fraud or an unpleasant experience.

Transport companies are quick to stress that they can transport only the customer's vehicle. Customers are not allowed to pack their cars with clothes, small appliances or even spare parts. The fuel tank cannot be completely full, and owners are usually required to be present when the vehicle is picked up or delivered to complete the inspection.

Some car owners have frequent transport needs, so they purchase their own trailer and tow vehicle. These include car collectors or enthusiasts who display their pristine vehicles at car shows or weekend racers who compete at area tracks. Single-car trailers come in many styles and sizes to hold the vehicle, spare parts and tools. The key for a safe transport is matching the trailer weight with the towing capacity of the tow vehicle.

There is one other method of getting a vehicle from one location to another: drive it! Dedicated driveaway agencies provide drivers to customers who don't want to drive themselves or don't have the time or budget to have their vehicle transported. The reputable agencies will screen potential drivers and match them accordingly to the customer's schedule and destination. The drivers are not paid and often must pay for their own gas. But they do get the free use of a car for their travels across the country.

Can a ship carrying thousands of vehicles end up on the ocean floor? We'll look at safety and security next.


Auto Transport Safety and Security

While accidents have been reported involving all types of auto transport, the industry's record is remarkably safe and efficient. Officials say the majority of accidents and damage losses are caused by human error rather than equipment failure.

Although such incidents are isolated, an auto carrier ship can sink. Here are a few examples:


  • In December 2002, the Norwegian car carrier Tricolor was struck by the container ship Kariba in the English Channel. The Tricolor sunk in 30 minutes with more than 2,000 luxury vehicles aboard [source: Automotive News Europe].
  • In November 2002, nearly 3,700 vehicles were lost when the Hual Europe caught fire after being grounded during a typhoon near a Japanese island [source: Automotive News].
  • In May 2004, the MV Hyundai No. 105 collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore and sunk with nearly 4,200 vehicles aboard [source: Automotive News Europe].

Accidents are involving railroad car carriers are also rare, although there have been reports of rail cars hitting overpasses and damaging the roofs of the loaded vehicles.

As it turns out, auto transporters are involved in the fewest number of fatal crashes when compared with other cargo haulers. In a 2005 report, the agency reported 4,932 fatal accidents involving large trucks, 31 of which were auto transporters, or 0.6 percent. In the same study for 2006, the agency reported 4,732 fatal accidents with 40 involving auto transporters, or 0.8 percent [source: U.S. Department of Transportation].

Injuries have been recorded due to vehicles falling off open trailers during loading, including when forklifts are used to load inoperable vehicles. Other injury accidents occur when workers slip off upper decks or if the safety pins to limit ramp movement are not in place and the ramps drop quickly on an unsuspecting worker. Newer trailers manufactured by Boydstun feature hydraulic rams with screw-drive technology that eliminate the need for safety pins because they have an internal positive-lock mechanism.

Even though most vehicles are transported on open trailers, Ford and Toyota officials say their new vehicles are delivered to the dealerships damage free at a rate between 99.7 and 99.88 percent. Auto carriers have incentives to deliver the vehicles damage free as well as on time. Some automakers use a plastic wrap to protect the entire vehicle or sensitive areas. Heavy tarps mounted on the trailer sides can protect the lower vehicles against debris. Some luxury models are transported in enclosed trailers [sources: Nelson and Lowe].

Read on to learn about the future of auto transport.


Future of Auto Transport

While some industry officials admit the auto transport market is slow to change, others are encouraged by recent cooperative efforts and more emphasis on environmentally friendly improvements.

A generation ago, automakers didn't want their vehicles sharing space on the same trailer with another brand. But half-filled trailers or rail cars cost transport companies money and waste fuel. Automakers now recognize the potential savings in filling the trailers, so officials have been discussing collaborative efforts. As Ford's Walter Lowe, a participant in the talks, stated: "We don't compete on the truck. We compete in the showroom."


Officials envision a more cooperative network of transporters that could be based on a hub-and-spoke system similar to some airlines. Such a complex network will be easier to develop thanks to improved GPS and cellular technology. Dispatchers can monitor truck and rail movements more accurately, then communicate with truck drivers in a timely manner for pickup and delivery. GPS and computer modeling are also helping transport companies develop more efficient travel routes that save fuel and improve on-time deliveries.

Industry observers don't foresee any dramatic changes in equipment. New car-carrying ships may get larger but unless highway regulations change, auto-transport trailers aren't likely to grow in size. New designs, however, will be safer for the operators with improved ramp controls and safer footing on top ramps. Next-generation trailers will have more protective measures, such as padding and additional clearance, to reduce the chance of vehicle damage during loading.

Finally, big rigs are getting greener with clean diesel engines, biofuels and improved exhaust treatments. The next-generation of trucks will also include hybrid models with electric-motor assist, similar to the Toyota Prius. An electric motor will be used for acceleration and low-speed driving, then power from the diesel engine will blend in for more efficient cruising [source: ArvinMeritor].

For more information on automobile transport and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • ArvinMeritor, news release, January 10, 2007. "ArvinMeritor to Develop First Dual-Mode Heavy-Duty Diesel-Electric Drivetrain for Wal-Mart." id=000000001A447390AA6611CD9BC800AA002FC45A0900CEE5AD C7AA9FD411A2F20008C791E019000000011D5A0000E4E2DED959 C4E04BA00BB1B300A64A3D0000001D72100000
  • Association of American Railroads, "Class I Railroad Statistics." July 17, 2008.
  • Automotive News. "2008 Market Data, Dealer Data." May 26, 2008. (supplement to subscription)
  • Automotive News. "2008 Market Data, North American Production." April 7, 2008 (supplement to subscription)
  • Automotive News. "Kia loses 1,997 cars in freighter fire." November 26, 2002.
  • Automotive News Europe. "Luxury Cars Go Down in Shipwreck." December 17, 2002.­212170711
  • Automotive News Europe. "Ship carrying 4,190 vehicles sinks off Singapore." May 24, 2004.
  • Becker, John. Trainer, United Road Services. Interview, August 6, 2008.
  • Boydstun Metal Works.
  • Brock Racing Enterprise, Sales Brochure. "The BRE Orca."
  • CSX Corporation Railroad Dictionary.
  • Featherlite Trailers, Sales Brochure. "Transporters: The Inside Story."
  • Havely, Joe. "Air Force One: The Flying White House." Feb. 15, 2002.
  • Honda news release. "Honda Launches Auto-Max Fleet." June 19, 2008.
  • Kelley Blue Book. "Destination Charges."
  • Kontos, Tom. Economist, ADESA Analytical Services. Email correspondence. July 31, 2008.
  • Lowe, Walter. North American vehicle logistics manager, Ford Motor Co., Interview. July 31, 2008.
  • Mazda Motor Corp., news release. "All Mazda Vehicles From Cary-Carrying Vessel Cougar Ace to be Scrapped." Dec. 15, 2006.
  • Nelson, Mike. National manager for highway transportation, Toyota Motor Sales. Interview. July 31, 2008.
  • Oregon Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation. "Fatality Investigation Report OR-2003-18-1."
  • Stone, Dave, national accounts manager, Boydstun Metal Works. Interview. August 6, 2008.
  • Ships and Yacht Information.
  • Syson, Neil. "Sheikh flies Lamborghini 6,500 miles to Britain for Oil Change." The Sun. July 31, 2008.
  • U.S. Dept. of Transportation. "2005 Large Truck Crash Facts." February 2007.
  • U.S. Dept. of Transportation. "2006 Large Truck Crash Facts." January 2008.
  • Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics news release. "World's Newest, Largest Car Carrier Receives her Name." April 29, 2008.'sNewsetLargestCarCarrierReceivesHerName.pdf