Out of all the potential mega-disasters that we prep for, EMPs are probably the most plausible and the most likely.
Gaining widespread attention for the potential destruction they can inflict along with severe second and third-order effects on society, widespread, massively destructive EMPs can be created by nuclear detonations, special EMP weapons, or even natural phenomena in the form of solar storms or cosmic gamma-ray bursts.
Any of these events, if powerful enough, has the potential to send society back to the Stone Age, or at least the pre-industrial solid-state electronics will be damaged or destroyed.
Solid-state electronics will be damaged or destroyed. Our power grid will go down hard and will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future.
Many of the gadgets and much of the equipment we depend on for day-to-day life will be out of action. Sadly, this probably includes a huge number of vehicles on the road today.
Considering how important your personal vehicle is in your overall readiness plan, it is imperative that you do everything you can to protect it against the effects of an EMP.
This article will tell you what the extent of your car’s vulnerability is likely to be, and what you can do to help harden your car against destruction or malfunction.
Table of Contents
What is an EMP?
EMP is an acronym, standing for electromagnetic pulse. Weak electromagnetic pulses, and lesser electromagnetic fields are all around us in modern life, generated by all sorts of electrical equipment and technology.
Almost are absolutely harmless, some have the potential to cause interference with other electronics. But those aren’t really what we are worried about, or discussing, today.
Colloquially, when you see someone refer to an EMP in the context of preparation or threats to society they are talking about a major EMP, the kind that has the potential to cause widespread disruption, damage, or total destruction to electrical grids and most electronic equipment.
Where Do EMPs Come From?
EMPs of this type can be generated by the detonation of a nuclear warhead as a secondary damage-dealing mechanism, created by specialized EMP generator weapons or even result from entirely natural but still threatening cosmic phenomena such as coronal mass ejections or solar storms and the mercifully rare gamma-ray burst.
Any of these major events could affect your vehicle.
What are an EMP’s Effects?
The damaging effects of an EMP relate directly to the dangerous voltages that it can impart into conductive surfaces, as these loads can result in shorting, overload, overheating, and other hazardous effects.
Circuit boards and other solid-state components are extremely vulnerable to the effects of an EMP, and power lines will be subjected to extreme currents that can burn out various systems, substations and even affect power plants farther up the line.
Anything that is plugged into the power grid at the instant the pulse affects it can be subjected to a dangerous overload.
It should be noted that any devices not specially protected, hardened, or shielded against the EMP can be affected by them because it conductive materials, and wires in particular, basically act as antennas for its effects.
EMP Effects on Cars
The obvious vulnerability of modern automobiles to an EMP is due to their ever-increasing use of computerized systems and other vulnerable electronic components.
Many modern vehicles won’t operate at all if these systems are disrupted or destroyed.
Older vehicles fare somewhat better, but even systems as rudimentary as electronic fuel injection and basic wiring throughout the vehicle could be negatively affected or destroyed by any powerful EMP.
The general rule of thumb is that the newer a vehicle is, or rather the more sophisticated than computerized it is, the more likely it will be temporarily or permanently knocked out when exposed to a powerful EMP.
However, it must be pointed out that this is not a certainty, and it is also not a certainty that older vehicles without any sophisticated electronics on board or computerized control systems won’t be affected.
The Extent of Automobile EMO Vulnerability is Anything But Certain
As mentioned above, if you ask the average prepper about an EMP’s effects on vehicles they will likely assert in the affirmative that modern automobiles are vulnerable, while older ones are not.
In reality, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty, even among experts, concerning the actual vulnerability of automobiles of any vintage to an EMP, and even more uncertainty about the extent of the damage that can occur assuming that it does.
We aren’t guessing here: the US government and private organizations have performed extensive EMP testing on vehicles at facilities as prestigious as the White Sands Missile Range laboratory in New Mexico and L-3’s Colorado facilities.
The short version is that many of the tests performed were either flawed, hampered by special interests, incomplete, or the results disputed heavily among the scientists that both participated and observed.
When subjected to ever-increasing EMP levels, most cars in the testing protocol simply malfunctioned or turned off.
Some had various systems damaged. Some wouldn’t restart at all and required parts replacement.
None, however, or subjected to the upper limit of EMP fields these facilities could produce, and as soon as a failure state was experienced the testing on a given car was halted.
The manufacturers of these vehicles aren’t disclosing which vehicles were tested and under which conditions. Neither is our own government. Public admissions from the lab staff are put up or retracted at turns.
It is almost as if the government has a vested interest in preventing this information from reaching the public. That, as always, is a bad sign.
Accordingly, if you want to be able to depend on your vehicle in the aftermath of an EMP you must take all steps within reason, that we can inform by experience, to protect your vehicle from the event and also be ready to make any necessary repairs in the aftermath to get your car back on the road.
Want to EMP Proof Your Own Car? Start with an Assessment of its Systems
Before you set about spending money and investing effort in EMP hardening your car, begin with an assessment of its age and systems.
Newer vehicles or any vehicle with more computerized technology aboard, must at the end of the day be more vulnerable to the effects of an EMP than an older vehicle.
Considering that anything like a passive anti-theft system or computerized ignition control that is damaged or rendered offline could “brick” the car and prevent it from operating.
It stands to reason that these vehicles are likely inherently more vulnerable to the immediate effects of an EMP even if at the end they are not completely destroyed by it.
Conversely, older vehicles lacking these electronics will have a lot less to worry about though they might prove to be vulnerable to an EMP in ways you wouldn’t expect, which we will talk about later.
And short, the more electronics your vehicle has the more vulnerable it probably is and the more work you’ll have to do to protect the car with shielding and hardening.
What Steps are Needed to Protect Your Car from an EMP?
EMP protection boils down to two factors: shielding and hardening.
Shielding is exactly what it sounds like. This is surrounding or completely enclosing vulnerable components of the vehicle or the entirety of the vehicle itself with an envelope of material that will block and redirect the EMP energy to prevent it from reaching vulnerable systems in the first place.
If vulnerable systems are unaffected, they will not malfunction though they could still be subject to second and third-order effects later.
Hardening is a process of increasing the durability of components and subsystems against the effects of an EMP, usually undertaken when properly shielding them is impossible or too difficult.
Hardening can be achieved through the use of redundant systems or by greatly increasing the EMP resistance of a given component or system so that it will continue to function normally or only malfunction where lesser systems might be destroyed.
Shielding and Hardening Solutions
You can do one or the other for your vehicle, or you can do both.
Proper and effective shielding might be easily accomplished by keeping a vehicle inside a completely closed metal garage waiting for the day that an EMP might occur and thus providing you with a working car.
Hardening solutions can be retrofitted to pretty much any vehicle simply enough through a laborious process of snapping on appropriately sized ferrite cores over unshielded bundles of wire.
Though not 100% effective, they might prove adequate to result in only a malfunction where damage might otherwise occur.
One change that can only be undertaken with extensive custom modification or at the factory level is disconnecting the grounded terminal of the vehicle’s battery from the vehicle’s frame and implementing the use of a shielded twisted wire cable pair instead.
While achievable, this is a major undertaking and is considered impractical for most owners.
And, it must be said, some specific models of vehicles that could vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer might not need any particular EMP protection at all.
Remember that in testing we know some vehicles experienced nothing more than blinking lights on the dashboard or a temporary loss of power that could be overcome by simply restarting the car or, at worst, disconnecting the battery and then reconnecting it to hard reset affected electronics.
I would love to tell you which vehicles could be dependably counted on to function after a major EMP, but unfortunately all the involved parties are extremely tight-lipped about it, so we just don’t know.
Do You Need Different Protection for Nuclear, Non-Nuclear, and Natural EMPs?
No, although it should be pointed out that nuclear and non-nuclear EMPs are all but certain to be far more powerful than typical, naturally occurring EMP from solar storms or other cosmic activity.
Systems that will protect against these man-made EMPs will certainly work just as well against naturally occurring ones.
Considering that reliably protecting your vehicle against these effects is difficult enough, that is a relief at least.
This is Crazy! Is it Even Worth Trying?!
Considering that we are dealing with a subject that has an insurmountable amount of uncertainty, you might be wondering if it is even worth trying to protect your vehicle by any means.
It’s an understandable question, but the answer is once again fairly complicated: based on what we know about the professional testing that has been done, most vehicles that were affected simply shut down, and if they were in motion they would coast or roll to a stop under nominal control.
This means that assuming you keep your wits about you, your vehicle isn’t going to burst into flames, explode or go out of control as a result of the EMP.
The real threat during a driving scenario is from all the other drivers on the road.
Imagine your vehicle just shutting off while at highway speeds as all of the traffic lights go off or malfunction, cell phones, and radios die or short out and the lights on the dashboard of these vehicles light up or blink erratically as sparks and flames fly from power lines.
To say that this will cause the most monumental traffic catastrophe in the history of the world is the understatement of the millennium.
Assuming your car is not mangled in a pile-up, there is a better than zero percent chance you’ll simply be able to restart the car, or restart it after a little bit of tinkering with the battery.
Some vehicles might need certain electronic, electromechanical, or computerized components replaced before they can be restored to operation. Other vehicles might not ever restart again.
Consider Buying an EMP-proof Model of Car
If you really want to give yourself peace of mind, consider getting a much older model of vehicle that does not have any of the typical electronic ignition, performance, or luxury options.
Most cars made before 1970 have a lack of such equipment, and might be a good option if you are seeking a backup vehicle or a dedicated EMP resistant rig.
Warning: Older or Even Primitive Automobiles Might Still be Vulnerable to EMPs
Sorry to break it to you, but I have even more bad news. Even when dealing with vehicles made in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, it is possible that a powerful EMP, originating close by, could still damage the vehicles despite their lack of sophisticated electronics.
Both US and Soviet high-altitude nuclear tests produced many witnesses and participants that attested to non-blast and non-thermal damage to these vehicles all the way back in 1962, damage requiring repair and parts replacement.
And even though details are scarce, Soviet military nuclear tests showed similar damage to vintage diesel generators that had absolutely no components that we would think of as typically vulnerable to the effects of an EMP. See the Jerry Emanuelson report linked above for more info.
The peak voltage produced by the EMP generated from these old nuclear weapons is orders of magnitude less than what we know modern nuclear weapons and EMP generators can produce.
Accordingly, it is probably a safe bet to say that even vehicles we are counting on to be EMP resistant could well prove to be fundamentally vulnerable to these massive voltages even lacking any electronic components at all.
Once again, there is just not enough data that we have access to, and the people who do have access to it are entirely tight-lipped about it.
Are Gas or Diesel Vehicles More Resistant to an EMP?
Neither, not in light of all of the other vulnerabilities discussed previously.
Diesel vehicles might prove to be as vulnerable or as resistant according to the make and model, the year, the equipment and countless other factors.
Can You Just EMP-proof the Garage?!
Potentially yes! A metal garage or other conductive enclosure around your vehicle will provide a degree of EMP protection.
However, it is possible that any wiring running from outside the garage to the inside could transmit the EMP to the interior, potentially harming the vehicle anyway.
Similarly, if the garage is sitting on the ground or on a concrete pad, both are somewhat conductive and the tires of the vehicle will not be enough insulation since EMPs are known to punch right through many materials we consider to be typically insulating of electrical currents.
But, with a little bit of expense and proper planning it is possible that a simple, light, and properly assembled and sealed metal building might be all you need to give your car a significant amount of protection.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some are, or at least as proof as we know how to make them, while others are not. Many military vehicles, including ground vehicles, have a certain amount of EMP hardening but very few can be said to be truly EMP shielded.
No, at least if you are considering the threat to be the most powerful nuclear-generated EMPs.
Even the relatively small nuclear weapons tested back in the 1960s proved to be capable of damaging automobiles that we consider primitive by today’s standard.
Unlikely, although someone who is touching electronic components that are directly affected and energized by the pulse might be shocked.
It is also not out of the question that the EMP could cause materials in the car to catch fire.
An EMP will not affect passengers as a lightning strike might potentially do, although any resultant crash can definitely injure passengers.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.
1 thought on “EMP Proof Vehicle: Here’s How to Get Started”
If the grid is taken down, the fuel pumps and supply would be screwed. So once your tank is empty, (or your fuel goes bad) it’s not going to matter much anyway.