While we don’t currently live under the threat of nuclear war, the possibility is always there. While a strike is terrifying, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that such a blast releases will knock our technologically immersed world back into the Stone Age. Cars, cellphones, computers and other connected devices will cease to function. It’s become an overused trope in modern media, leaving characters struggling to survive in a world both familiar and unfamiliar, where the modern conveniences they’ve come to rely on no longer work.
Some experts have stressed the importance of EMP-proofing your car to ensure you have transportation after a nuclear strike, while others have denounced the practice as unnecessary. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind EMP-proofing your vehicle, whether it’s essential, and how to complete this task if you choose to carry it out.
Just how vulnerable are we to an electromagnetic pulse, like one a nuclear detonation might create?
We weren’t kidding when we said such a strike could knock us back into the Stone Age, and the effects would be much more widespread than those caused by a nuclear detonation. Nearly everything these days runs on computers or related technology, from devices in your homes like cellphones, tablets and appliances to the grids that handle our food, water, power and health services.
Transportation would collapse, our communication infrastructure would fall apart, and it could take years or decades for society as we know it to recover.
One of the early nuclear detonation tests on the Johnson Atoll in 1962 caused radio and electrical disruptions in Hawaii — more than 1,000 miles away from the test site. Keep in mind that this was nearly 60 years ago, and technology has changed dramatically since then.
Today nearly everything relies on technology, and we’ve done relatively little to protect ourselves from this growing threat. Modern cars, for example, have almost every system regulated by an onboard computer. How would an EMP strike affect these vehicles?
This question isn’t an easy one to answer — it’s not as simple as saying yes or no, your car will fall victim to an EMP pulse or it will survive. There are numerous variables you have to take into account, including:
- Which direction the vehicle is facing in relation to the electromagnetic pulse
- The height of detonation, if a nuclear strike causes the EMP
- The exact gamma ray output of the explosion
- The vehicle’s distance from the detonation
- The strength of the planet’s magnetic field in your location
- Where the car is — parked, in a garage, driving down the highway, etc.
- The year, make and model of the vehicle
Now you see why this is a difficult question to answer. Have automotive manufacturers run any tests on their cars to determine whether they can withstand an electromagnetic pulse?
If automotive manufacturers have done any EMP testing on their products, they’re very closed-lipped about anything they may have learned. The U.S. military has done numerous tests on its equipment at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to determine how its vehicles — from Jeeps to A-1 Abrams tanks — will perform in the event of a nuclear strike or electromagnetic pulse. The electronics in these vehicles are hardened, treated in such a way that they will withstand strong electromagnetic pulses, but the average passenger car doesn’t have these features.
Automakers have also used White Sands as a place to test how their vehicles will stand up to an EMP blast, but the information is strictly confidential. Most of the time, automotive manufacturers show up at the missile range with their test cars wrapped in brown paper so no know can see the make or model.
Is It Worth The Effort?
Is it worth the effort to EMP-proof your car?
In 2008, the U.S. EMP Commission carried out a series of tests in one of its facilities in Colorado. The results were surprising in spite of the popularity of the idea of cars rolling to a stop after an EMP blast as portrayed in modern media. Out of the 37 vehicles that were tested, only three shut off when exposed to an electromagnetic field, and all three restarted after it was gone! The field did cause the lights to blink and some of the instruments to malfunction, but 81 percent of the test vehicles continued to function in the test environment.
It is important to note that the test subjects were models manufactured between 1986 and 2002, which at the time represented the majority of the passenger cars on the road. If any vehicles manufactured after 2002 have been subjected to this testing, the manufacturers haven’t been forthcoming with the information.
If you choose to EMP-proof your vehicle that is entirely up to you but if you’re driving something manufactured in 2002 or before, you may be wasting your time. That being said, if you are interested in doing it anyway, here are some steps to help you get started.
How to EMP-Proof Your Car — A Note
Before we get started, a quick note: These steps are based on the assumption that you’re not close enough to a nuclear blast that you burn up in the firestorm. If that’s the case, you won’t need to drive anywhere, and your car will likely melt to the asphalt.
Now that we’ve got that pleasant bit of information out of the way, here are a few things you can do to EMP-proof your car. This goes way beyond preventive maintenance, so be prepared.
1. Trade It in for Something Older
The reason most modern cars are vulnerable to EMP strikes is the fact that they’re computer-controlled. Everything from the fuel and air ratio to the radio and power windows has some electronic components that might short out or be damaged by an electromagnetic pulse.
One way to avoid this problem is to trade in your newer car for something a little more antique. In this context, we’re considering anything built after 1986.
Ideally, you’ll want to look for a vehicle with a carbureted engine and four-wheel drive — the latter because it will be challenging to navigate highways due to dead or abandoned cars, and going off-road might be your only option. Small engines, like the ones found in an old Jeep CJ, are more fuel-efficient — which will make it easier to keep your car on or off the road.
New cars, especially electric and hybrid models will likely be a lost cause. If they experience an EMP, you’ll have to find alternate modes of transportation.
2. Store It in a Faraday Cage
A Faraday cage is a metal container that reroutes electrical energy — even electromagnetic pulses — to protect the items contained within. Scientists use them during the construction of sensitive electronic components. These electromagnetic waves are always all around us, and something is needed to keep them out to prevent short circuits and equipment damage.
If you park your car in a metal garage, you’re already well on your way to having your very own Faraday cage. Concrete garages can help as well, but they’re not as conductive as metal ones. The problem with modern garages is the wiring. Your garage is probably wired for electricity, and those wires will carry an electromagnetic pulse through the metal or concrete walls, radiating it within the structure and negating the purpose of a Faraday cage.
While this won’t help you if there is a nuclear strike while you’re out on the road, a car parked inside a Faraday cage should be protected from the EMP generated by such an attack.
The car itself is made of steel and aluminum, so it is also a Faraday cage of sorts. The problem is that there are too many open spaces — such as the windows and windshield — that transmit the electromagnetic forces to the interior of the vehicle. Cover anywhere your car doesn’t have metal — glass, plastic, etc. — with layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Make sure this foil is touching the car’s frame or body so it can discharge any accumulated electromagnetic energy. It’s not a foolproof method, and you can’t drive with the windshield obscured by foil, but it could prove useful if you don’t have a garage to store your vehicle.
3. Keep Backup Parts on Hand
If you are caught out on the road when an EMP hits, be prepared to make some repairs to your vehicle. An electromagnetic pulse can damage exposed components, even if they’re not hooked up to anything, which brings us back to the Faraday cage.
Keep backup electronics on hand, both for your vehicle and your home, and store them in Faraday cages in your home. Something as simple as a metal trash acts as a Faraday cage, as long as it has a lid. Wrap your components in cloth or paper, then in heavy-duty foil. You can then place the wrapped parts in your Faraday container and seal them up.
If an EMP does take out your vehicle, give it a few days to ensure there are no additional strikes, then open your Faraday cage and start replacing the defective components. If they were successful, you’d have a functional vehicle in no time.
4. Store Fuel in Sealed Containers
Cars aren’t the only thing that will be affected by electromagnetic pulses, as we’ve already explained. Even if you can get your car running again, you won’t be able to get gas from the pump if the EMP damages electricity or computers. If you’ve got a full tank when the EMP strikes, that will only carry you so far. Even if the pumps are still working after a pulse, survivors will likely be flocking to them, draining them dry with no hope of refill.
Gasoline straight from the pump doesn’t last very long. It will evaporate and gel up, making it useless. You’ve got two options to help your fuel last longer.
First, you can use gasoline additives to keep the fuel from evaporating. This is an ongoing process — you’ll need to pour in more additives once a year to keep it viable.
The other option is to rotate your fuel stores. Use your stored fuel in your vehicle, and refill the containers with fresh gas from your local station.
Fixing your vehicle doesn’t do you a lot of good unless you’ve got enough fuel to keep it moving. Make sure you’ve stocked up on gasoline fuel before the worst happens.
5. Invest In Aftermarket Protection
There are some aftermarket options available to help you protect your vehicle from an EMP strike. You wire them into your car’s electrical system, and they work by rerouting any incoming electrical or electromagnetic energy. This technology supposedly works in the event of an EMP or other electrical surges like lightning strikes.
This shield is new technology, and we’re not 100 percent sure that it will protect your vehicle. If you’re layering more than one form of EMP protection, though, it doesn’t hurt to add something like this to your car.
More Than Just an EMP
Protecting your vehicle from an electromagnetic pulse is just one of the steps you need to take to prepare yourself and your property in the event of a nuclear strike. You’ll also need to store food and water, and prepare for the possibility of nuclear fallout. While a nuclear blast isn’t the only potential source for an electromagnetic pulse, it is one of the most common.
Assuming you’re not within the blast radius, you will need to be ready to survive without being able to drive to the grocery store or turn on the kitchen tap to get a drink. Hospitals that are still standing will likely be overloaded with victims of the attack, and the best thing you can do to survive is to get as far away from the blast radius as possible. You can do this on foot, but having a functioning vehicle it more manageable and increases your chances for survival.
Scott Huntington is a writer and blogger who lives in Vermont and loves the great outdoors.
Follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington or check out his blog, Off The Grid