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Can a lightning strike change the odometer reading?

I work for an insurance company, and last year I had a total loss for a vehicle that was struck by lightning. I was able to turn the car on for 3 seconds, at which time ALL of the electronic components went haywire (wipers going, washer fluid squirting, horns blaring, headlamps flashing, radio blasting). I was able to see the odometer reading before the car shut off (90,530 miles).

Now, 10 months later, the customer has called saying her lienholder is charging her for excessive mileage. The customer is claiming she thinks the lightning strike CHANGED HER ODOMETER READING! First she says she saw it happen from her apartment window, then she says she was standing right next to the car and when she opened the door she saw all of the numbers on the dashboard “rolling”. She needs us, the insurance company, to say that it is POSSIBLE for the lightning strike to have changed mileage her odometer displayed.

So, thoughts? Would/could a lightning strike change the number reading on the odometer? If anything, wouldn’t it fry the computer and/or the display?

Yes, it would be much more likely to fry the computer(s) and the wiring and lots of other electronics.

But I’m confused. If it’s a total loss, what difference does the odometer reading make? If the computer is fried, the odometer reading would be lost.

If she was standing next to the car when it was hit by lightning, opening the door and looking at the odometer would be the last thing on her mind, if she survived the blast.

Have her produce maintenance receipts for work done on the car. Those each show a mileage number. Several of these would give you an idea of the final mileage of the car.


What vehicle does that? Even digital OD’s have their own independent system.

Yeah I think that’s possible. Very strange things can happen when lighting finds a path (or makes a path) to ground. Agree with @BillRussell, receipts should help prove the actual mileage before the strike. Digital Odo’s wouldn’t be anymore immune to such things than the display electronics.

What confuses me is why the _lien_holder is charging for excessive mileage. The bank doesn’t care how much you drive the car as long as you pay the note on time every month.

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I assumed it was a leased car…

I wondered about that… but a lightning strike could easily toast it.

But changing the number without toasting it, pretty remote…

It’s possible but unlikely in my opinion. The Odo reading is stored in non-volatile memory. It takes a specific sequence of pulses to those parts to get them to store new information. Just hammering it with an electrical discharge would more likely damage the part than to alter its contents.

Regardless, no one in their right mind would expect (or accept) the non-professional opinion of someone not educated in electronics or these systems to attest to the possible outcomes of lightning strikes on automotive electronics. What credentials does anyone at the insurance company have in this regard to back up their conclusions? The silence will be deafening… :wink:

I would tell the customer just that- we are not experts in this area. You will need to consult with someone qualified to express an opinion on the matter.

Plus, if it’s totaled, then excess mileage is moot. The reduction in residual value is insignificant compared to the other damage.


Have you ever had a power surge in your house and have electronics go haywire? If it is totaled, I am not sure why this is even an issue other than determining the value of the car between the insurance company and the owner.

Is there any maintenance records that would show recent mileage? Maybe a oil change reminder sticker on the windshield?

Anything is possible I suppose but I do agree the numbers are actually protected somehow to some extend but so what? I think the best defense to over charges would be providing the mileage readings on service records. If it was lightening, there should be a big jump in the mileage from one service to the next. That would be more legitimate. Now if the car was totaled 10 months ago and the lien holder is just trying to collect more money, I guess you need a lawyer.

I agree with that. My only comment was that the ECU does not store the OD - at least on any vehicle owned.

You can actually go to ebay and buy used OD which has lower miles.

The lienholder might not be a bank, but I’m having trouble figuring out what other kind of linholder would care. It must be a leased vehicle.

We are the wrong people to ask that question. You should discuss this with experts in semiconductors to determine if a power surge could alter the contents of nonvolatile memory. I suppose, and I’m just guessing, it could. I agree with the others that the person that made the claim should produce maintenance receipts that show the mileage must be less than what you read. I don’t see how it is the insurance companies problem anyway. If your company’s attorneys think you involved the company in this dispute, you should go for the receipts to show mileage just before the lightning strike or a pattern of lower mileage that would be hard to make up in the period between the last receipt and the lightning strike.

if it is an electronic odometer possibly yes, but unlikely, because the instrument cluster likely works on ~10V. A lightening strike would likely fry the electronics of displays completely and nothing would show up except perhaps garbage characters. I would suspect the computer (EMC or whatever this thing has) was destroyed in the lightening strike. The mileage is not stored in the ECM but on non-volatile memory inside the cluster. If mechanical odometer than absolutely no.

A question because I’m not knowledgeable about these things:

Could a lightning strike damage the display electronics such that even though the memory has the correct mileage, it shows up incorrectly because the display couldn’t show it?

Good point. You could have segments that are either fried or permanently on that could alter the displayed values. A zero becomes an 8 or visa-versa. However, most odometers now can cycle between other readings/functions like a trip odometer reading for example. Any segments affected would also be affecting those readings. So you might be able to validate this by changing display readings, resetting trip odos or driving around and watching for changes as the mileage increases.

Thanks for the answer.
In the OP’s situation, the electronics now seem to be dead. Seems like there’s no easy way to check a damaged display possibility.

Absolutely not. A direct lightening strike would expose the electronics to thousands of volts. An average lightening bolts carries approximately 25-30 kA. That’s 25,000 - 30,000 amperes. There is nothing left of the delicate electronics contained inside the console. I doubt that this event was a direct strike. There is no way a person can stand next to the car and observe the odometer “rolling”. The lady would be dead or at least in a hospital now.

I suspect an indirect strike and the car acted like a Faraday cage, but sufficient voltage and amps to destroy some electronics. OP said that the console worked for a few seconds, but without a working ECM behind it not much will happen. It would not surprise me at all if the console is actually still working if it was installed in another car. I do believe that circuitry was protected by fuses. In my (humble) opinion the mileage the OP observed was the correct mileage.

Yes, there is. remove it and hook up a 10-12V low lantern battery.

Learning from the famous game of ‘telephone’, we don’t know what the woman actually said, much less what she actually saw. Maybe it was a brief flash of the digital odometer lighting up.

And I agree that it could have been an indirect strike. And again because of the ‘telephone’ game, I doubt any of us hearing about the situation knows the current state of the different electronics.

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