Engine runaway is a dangerous condition that is more common in diesel engines than gasoline engines. If not properly handled, a runaway engine will almost always end up completely destroying itself. If runaway occurs while driving, the vehicle may accelerate on its own, without any throttle request. Knowing what runaway is and what causes it will help to understand how best to handle it.
What is engine runaway?
As you probably already know, being on a diesel-focused blog, diesel engines use high compression to ignite diesel fuel, i.e. compression ignition. The high heat and pressure inside the cylinder cause the diesel fuel to explode. Diesel fuel isn’t the only fuel source that can work on a diesel engine – in fact, the original diesel engine made by Rudolf Diesel was originally designed to run on vegetable oil!
Under normal circumstances diesel fuel is the only fuel source that is getting into the cylinder. But, since many items can function as fuel, problems arise when a different source of fuel is present. Engine runaway occurs when the engine is running on something other than the primary fuel source and this other source is uncontrolled/unmetered. The most common fuel source in engine runaways is engine oil.
Why does engine runaway happen?
Oil vapors are always present inside the cylinder, either from the EGR or from leak-by of valve seals or piston rings, so the engine is always burning a small amount. The amount of oil is small enough that it doesn’t make an impact on cylinder combustion. However, when part of an engine fails that allows excess oil to enter the cylinder, conditions are perfect for runaway.
Excess oil entering the engine, leading to runaway, is almost always caused by the turbocharging system. Runaway can also occur with extremely leaky piston rings or valve seals, but, that is more common on large industrial motors and fairly rare on light and medium duty diesel engines. There are two ways the turbocharging system can cause runaway:
- Turbocharger Failure: engine oil is used to lubricate the turbocharger internals. If the turbocharger fails that oil flow may enter the intake system and make its way to engine. If you suspect your turbocharger has failed, turn off the car immediately and do not drive it until repaired.
- Properly Working Turbo Pushing Oil Collected in Intercooler System: engine runaway can also occur with a healthy turbo when there is excess oil present in the intercooler or intercooler pipes.
- Runaway After New Turbocharger: whenever fixing a turbocharger or boost issue, including turbocharger or actuator replacement, always drain and clean all intercoolers and hoses before reassembly. If you fix a boost problem without cleaning those items, any oil collected in the system will be pushed together into the engine, which can cause a runaway.
How can you tell runaway is occurring?
Experiencing engine runaway is frankly a terrifying experience. Rather than experiencing it for the first time in real life, take some time and watch some YouTube videos on runaway – I’ve created a playlist of my favorite runaway videos here.
There are two things that immediately identify a runaway condition. The first is engine acceleration – i.e. the RPMs are going up or the car is accelerating – even though you are not pressing on the accelerator pedal. Second, the engine will produce a lot of smoke, like A LOT of smoke.
What should you do if you suspect runaway?
There are two rules to properly handle a runaway if you are driving the car.
- DO NOT PUT THE VEHICLE IN NEUTRAL! Being in neutral takes load off the engine and will cause the engine to accelerate quickly.
- USE YOUR BRAKES TO BRING THE CAR TO A COMPLETE STOP AND STALL THE ENGINE! Keep the car in gear and use the brakes the slow the car down. A runaway engine actually produces very little power, so, it should be easy to slow the car down using the brakes even in gear.
If you are working on the engine and it runs away you need to stop the engine’s source of air as quickly as possible. Combustion can’t occur if the engine can’t get oxygen, so suffocating the engine will stop the runaway. If you do a lot of engine work, always have a hard piece of material (I have a 1′ square piece of plywood) around that you can use to block an air intake. A engine in runaway will stop within seconds if you block the air intake.
What damage can occur if a runaway isn’t controlled?
Typically a runaway that isn’t handled properly using the methods above will either be completely destroyed or require substantial engine rebuilding. A runaway engine will continue to accelerate, way above the redline, until it physically cannot spin any faster. As the engine spins faster, engine oil that usually coats internals such as crankshaft and connecting rod bearings starts flying off these surfaces. Once enough oil has been ejected, metal-on-metal contact occurs and BAD things happen. The engine could seize and cause crankshaft damage on the bearing surfaces, or, some component many completely break/sheer off. It isn’t uncommon that a part of the engine, usually a connecting rod, breaks and punches a hole in the cylinder block.
Another scenario can occur called “hydrolocking” – hydrolocking occurs when so much liquid – like engine oil – enters the cylinder that the piston cannot move up to the top of its stroke. This, too, will cause the engine to seize.
You had a runaway, now what?
If your engine had a runaway and it was not caught before the engine seized on its own, the first thing to determine is why it seized. It is typically cheaper to buy an entire motor than try to repair an engine seized because of metal-on-metal contact. In hydrolocked engine, though, the damage is typically limited to a few bent connecting rods. It isn’t a cheap repair, but, it should be possible to fix the engine and put the car back on the road.
Tell us your story!
Have you had a runaway? Did it scare you? When did it happen? Did you get it repaired, if so, how? Let us know below.
This was a fantastic post!
I don’t know if anybody can help but I had a turbocharger replaced in a Vauxhall Movano van 2.3 l2 h2 Eden Vauxhall it ran on its own oll but not for too long switched off straight away the van doesn’t drive the same and definitely doesn’t pull the same as it did its t it’s been in to Eden Vauxhall 7 times and and hissing on 2000 revs
Hi. Very good explaining. A freelanfer L series rover motor have this problem right now. It did run away but nothing broke. I was trying to look cause the problem and do a control start somebody start and I was at the enjin took the air intake of before starting. It starts fast but pick up revs fast without the air intake on the motor. But it’s not swithing of by the key but keep on runing. I was control the revs by blocking the air intake partualy. I need help to decide wat to do to repair the problem. Thanks mate
I had one on Tuesday this week. A Hyundai i40 Tourer Diesel 1.7l 63 plate. Back in February it had the engine block replaced due to a porous block. Has been okay since then and I have done about 2-3000 miles in it. Checked levels of coolant and oil on Saturday and all good. Did several longish runs over the weekend, probably 500 miles in total, with no problems. Tuesday was coming back to work from lunch and it went slightly flat at the roundabout junction, then after a few hundred yards it did a little “surge”, then after another few hundred yards the engine started racing uncontrollably and smoke was pouring out of the back. There was also an awful knocking noise coming from underneath. I pulled off the roundabout, braked hard, took the key out of the ignition and jumped out of the car thinking it was going to catch fire. In hindsight I think I probably stalled the engine without realising that I was doing the right thing! I now realise that just taking the key out probably wouldn’t have stopped it. Phew.
Yes it did scare me, I have never experienced anything quite like that, I am not normally a person who panics but I literally had no idea what to do. All I could think of was to take the key out, I would never have thought to try and stall it on purpose. From the flat spot at the start of the roundabout to the engine stopping was about 90 seconds to 2 minutes, I reckon the uncontrollable racing lasted about 30-40 seconds before I managed to stop it.
It has been at the Hyundai garage ever since and so far they have told me it has diesel in the oil and that it may be the turbo or today they are now saying it may be the High Pressure Fuel Filter – but they are still investigating.
Hyundai Assistance called out the Police and the Fire Brigade due to the smoke and my dangerous position just off a Motorway off ramp.
Not sure how I am ever going to be confident driving it again. It has also had the gear box and reversing cameras replaced and the reversing sensors are still glitchy!
Shame cos I love it otherwise, its comfortable and the drive is great. Gutted!
I have a caterpillar 300.9d excavator that rolled over and ran away for what seemed like forever. Then it shut down and I thought it seized. I let it sit for 10 minutes and restarted it. Still runs and operates great. Amazing.
I have this issue with my peugot expert diesel 1.9 d van…revs get stuck and I need to stall to stop the smoke burning smell from exhaust. Can any one advise of what j should be looking at to repair j just can’t figure it out.
Hi that was a very good explanation of the runaway engine ty I have a tow business and a costumers son had rolled his 2014 Silverado 2500 nd 4×4 extra can and he hired me to repair the truck after 2 yrs of doing the body work I took it for a test run I let it idle in my drive way a good 25 min before I drove it and it started to accelerate on its own I turned around as I was coming down my drive way it started to put out a lot of smoke I parked it and bam it took off freaked me out a bit did not have a clue what to do after a minute or so of it taching out it died not sure why did not blow up nor did I hear any thing come a part any ideas??
I have had several runaways – the old vw diesels when using Rayjay turbo’s we would vent the crankcase directly into the intake and sometimes blow-by would build up – going down the road it was rather exhilarating for the engine to suddenly grow hair and start accelerating like crazy at 70 mph – all the while blowing out a huge cloud of smoke – they would accelerate for a little while, the oil would burn off and it would return to normal operation. So far as I could tell there was never any harm from this – At lower speed you simply had to apply the brakes and rein it in – you want to apply the brakes forcefully and rein it in quick before the brakes can fade.
there is another interesting thing that is sort of related – you can simply put your hand over the intake to shut the engine down – you do not need plywood – the maximum vacuum that can be generated is 14.7 psi – and that will not suck your hand down
I had an interesting thing happen one time with a 79 VW Dasher we had turbocharged – on a hot day driving the engine would suddenly lose compression – zero compression – spinning like crazy – and of course not running – what was happening was that the intake hose to the turbocharger was sucking flat and the engine had nothing but vacuum on the intake.
from that I learned that you can shut the engine compression off – say you want to just spin the engine – like when priming the fuel line after a filter change – or to bring up engine oil pressure after some work.
I am so glad after almost a year I found these articles! As of today I have owned 5 different V.W. Diesel cars. I almost lost my life in a 2014 V.W. Manual TDI that I owned for three weeks! The car picked up tremendous amount of speed instantly(no smoke though??) ,forcing me to swerve out into two blind corners..totally out of control…and NO Brakes!!! V.W in Kelowna B.C. brought a V.W. tech and they could find NOTHING wrong with it!! I refused to ever drive this car again! I traded it in on a 2015 V.W. TDI and have just been told the engine is gone at 150 thous km!!! So done with V.W and the services they provide!!!
Hi i was driving my vehicle golf 2.0 tdi in forth gear at 3000 revs trying to get the dpf light off and without warning of anything or any other warning lights coming on the engine excellerated rapidly and exploded and stopped, The engine block has a hole in the front and also at the rear, I’m waiting on Volkswagen to get back in touch at the moment because I have had a lot of problems with my car since it was recalled for the emissions, Hopefully they do something about it if not I’m left with a 3 legged donkey
had a runaway in my 2003 peugeot 206. turned out to be a failure in the turbocharger, sucked in oil and started burning it. I managed to stick it in 5th gear and stall the engine but it was too late, damaged turbo, damaged engine etc. Since the car was over 10 years old I scrapped it. Was a pretty terrifying experience watching the rev counter go into the red and having the car accelerate on it’s own even after switching off the ignition. Fortunately it was a manual and easy to stall… my current car is a diesel automatic. Not sure what I’d do if it happened in my present car.
If you have a C02 Extinguisher in the vehicle and you spray it into the air intake would this cause enough displacement of air to stall the engine? Or would that make it worse?
My work just got a brand new yard truck that uses large turbos. And we focus on safety, so im wondering if equipping a co2 extinguisher in the cab would be a good idea.
Josh – not sure, but I don’t think you could displace enough of the air oxygen with CO2 to make it work. Blocking the engine intake off is the best idea, so if there isn’t an air regulating flap already in the intake system you might consider adding one and training your drivers on how to engage the flap to block the airflow into the engine.
Just recently experienced a runaway on my tractor, tractor had been running good I started it one morning and the RPM kept increasing I thought it was going to blow up or catch fire I put it in reverse and held the brake to stop it,
mechanic took the fuel injection pump off and is currently having it rebuilt I will post if this takes care of the problem.
Defiantly not something you want to experience would not stop with key or pulling back on throttle cable.
I’m scared for life frightened hell out of me . 1986 Hi-Lux started to Runaway Diesel , I guided it off the road and by that time it was pulling 3500 revs , I never had a clue why . It finally stopped , blew the dipstick out but was generally ok . I gave it 30 minutes and drove it to the machineic to give me the bad news . That car has a mind of its own I thought .
I just found this post but I had a Diesel engine runaway in a 2003 Peugeot 206. The turbo blew and according to the breakdown guy it “sucked oil into the engine”. I was 21 and I’d never even heard of an engine runaway but I was driving the car around town, came around a roundabout and changed down a gear and after exiting the roundabout suddenly the rev counter went through the roof and redlined. I stopped the car and got out and switched off the engine but it continued to run until lots of smoke came out from the engine and the exhaust. Eventually the engine seized and I had the car towed home.
To repair the car, garage wanted £350 for a new turbo and £2,500 for a new engine but since the car was 10 years old I decided just to scrap it.
Had I known anything about engine runaways, I’d have stuck it in 5th gear and tried to stall the engine.
Now I drive a DSG automatic and I’m wondering what to do if it ever occurs again. I thought the entire car was going to explode.
Hi, I have citroen c4 2008. In the morning I started up the engine and gave it hard acceleration then I felt the engine gone on runaway for 15 to 20 seconds then I made turn off the engine immediately by the ignition key but it doesn’t start again. Could anyone give advice for that?
you missed one really common cause of runaway engine – people dont understand how a diesel works – more fuel = more power and two
bloody Aerostart – or petrol engine pre start fuels.
spray heaps in to get the engine going – when its being difficult.
2008 Ford Transit 2.4L 125,000 mi. During a road trip, I noticed a scraping noise reflected off underpasses and Armco railing. It was my van. I decided to pull over to check it out. I was in the fast lane in a dip in the road so I tried to accelerate to get past traffic and onto the shoulder. I was down on power. On the shoulder, I determined the scraping noise was coming from the turbo. I got back in and started to reverse to a more safe area when all hell broke loose. The revs shot up to 4,000 and huge clouds of white smoke came billowing out the exhaust. I turned off the key but it made no difference. So I put the car in gear and with my foot hard on the brake I let the clutch out. That stalled the engine quite easily, in line with what the article said about there not being much power. I’m going to replace the turbo and clean the inter cooler plumbing, as described. Thanks for the article. I WAS going to junk the van as I was convinced the engine was blown. I can now put it back in the road for a relatively small bill.
TDI Turbos leak oil slightly into the boost pipe which can collect at the bottom – when engine is reved high the collected oil can be sucked into the air/ fuel intake causing the overun. Some VW TDI garages / owners fit a drain screw at the bottom of the plastic boost pipe and drain out up to a litre. Serious design fault with VW TDI. Drain boost pipe before MOT emmisions test
I had an engine runaway and the engine siezed on it’s own.
They are saying our cylinder engine cracked, can that be a truthful cause?
Hi , I am having an issue not sure if it’s a run away as it has not ramped up in excelleration it just want cut off when I switch it off , this just started after having a big leak near my turbo 7.3 2000 F350 ,
Was doing maintenance and replaced power steering pump and did brake job , put back together and cranked to check power steering pump and noticed a good amount of oil starting to leak tried to shut it off and ignition switch would not kill it , so I pulled a relay and it stopped , power washed engine and turbo to find oil leak , found it by re starting engine but would not shut off had to pull relay again .? Not sure if I have ignition switch issue or runaway issue any advice is appreciated, thank you for your time , please remember Jesus loves us all something in the air feels like this may be getting close to the end . There are things we all need to work out the lord , sins we do and dismiss , lol especially us Christians, i am working on mine now and this old equipment hauler . The truck can wait what matters is each other , lost my mother this week so I know I’m in my feelings, so bear with me I just wanted to pass along this info about making all right as I watched her struggle in pain , a saint of a women and finally we put the phone to her ear and after talking with my son or listening because she was almost non responsive she seemed to to try and say or mouth love you and she past as soon the phone hung up . She had been a little frustrated with some off his life decisions and feel was harboring resentment when she let it go she crossed , even with people that have so little wrong , God works everything out . Had it been me I would have taken a year . So I am fixing mine now , just lived this truth I hope this helps some one and sorry I got off subject . But this is a site that gets you going again thank you for your time .