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EMPs and Automobiles: The Ultimate Traffic Jam

We have a pretty good idea of what a nuclear-generated EMP high voltage blast would do to the power grid and to electronic devices and equipment in general. But one thing that is more uncertain is the effect it might have on our cars and trucks. Over the past three decades or so, car companies have been adding more and more electronic circuitry to the vehicles they produce, and it has gotten to the point where almost everything that an automobile does is controlled by an electronic system. Given how dependent we have become in our culture on our cars, there is naturally a lot of curiosity and concern about how our own personal vehicles might hold up if we were to  suddenly be struck by a severe electromagnetic bolt from out of the blue.

So what is actually known about this particular subject? As we found out, not a whole heck of a lot.

The EMP Commission: Our Government in Action

While not specifically related to concerns over EMPs, car manufacturers have shown an awareness of the vulnerability of new vehicles to electromagnetic interference from various sources, and consequently, they have supplied the electronic systems in the cars they produce with some degree of EM shielding and protection. Apparently, some testing of various makes and models has taken place in EMP simulators, but car companies have carried out these experiments in private and haven’t revealed what they learned to anyone.

To try and fill the huge gap in knowledge that has existed with respect to this subject, the U.S. government’s EMP Commission took it upon themselves to test an assortment of vehicles in an EMP simulator. The results of these experiments were published in a special section of the Commission’s Critical National Infrastructure Report, which provided a comprehensive look at what an EMP attack might do to the electric and electronic infrastructure of our country.  Like much of what emerges from government studies, however, the information released about EMPs and automobiles appears to be of very little value.

To start with, the Commission was so underfunded that it wasn’t able to purchase any cars or trucks itself. Instead, it was forced to borrow vehicles from other government agencies, and it was required to return all the automobiles it borrowed in good working order. Only thirty-seven different types of cars and eighteen types of trucks were obtained for the tests, and the amount of EM energy used in the tests did not come close to matching the intensity of the voltage that would be generated in a high-altitude nuclear explosion. Vehicles used in these government experiments were exposed to gradually increasing levels of electromagnetic energy, up to the point where they began to show some kind of damage or anomalous functioning. In order to save the vehicles from being excessively damaged, tests were halted immediately after a car or truck began to manifest some kind of dysfunction.

Not surprisingly, this approach led the EMP Commission to issue a report downplaying the significance of EMP effects on vehicles with extensive electronic systems. In the tests the Commission carried out, a few cars and trucks experienced engine failures, while most only suffered relatively minor malfunctions in non-essential systems. But the methodology used by an underfunded and unprepared Commission made these relatively mundane findings inevitable – how could anything be learned about the real effects of massive nuclear-generated EMPs on vehicles if the electromagnetic energy feed used in the tests was cut off as soon as things started to get interesting?

Because the testing done so far has clearly been inadequate, right now all we can say for sure is that an EMP would likely cause a certain amount of vehicle malfunctioning; but how much serious, irreparable damage it would ultimately cause remains a mystery.

Protecting Your Cars and Trucks Against an EMP: Doing It Yourself

The main thing you can do to protect your vehicle from an EMP is to purchase snap-on ferrite cores. These neat items act as a shield for electronic wiring of all types, and while they don’t provide total protection from high-voltage atmospheric surges, they can reduce the damage they would cause substantially.

One surprising thing that was discovered during high-altitude nuclear EMP tests carried out by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1962 is that pulses were capable of blowing out the internal operating systems of older vehicles without any electronic circuitry inside. So while it may be a good idea to keep an older car or truck around as a hedge against future catastrophes, plenty of spare parts should still be kept on hand in preparation for an electromagnetic emergency – ignition coils, mechanical distributors, generators, starting motors, fuses, and any parts with enamel wire insulation could all be damaged in an EMP attack.

Riding the Range with Mel Gibson

Whether or not a particular vehicle would work after an electromagnetic pulse is not easy to determine. The one thing that we do know for sure, however, is that a massive EMP assault that destroyed the power grid would cause gasoline production and supply lines to shut down completely, and it would no doubt take a long time before fuel supplies could be returned to anything close to what they were before the EMP attack. So even if most vehicles still worked, getting gasoline for them could be the real problem. In a situation such as this, we could only hope that a Mad Max/Road Warrior scenario did not become our new collective reality.

Our ridiculous over-dependence on the automobile – it is almost impossible to walk anywhere anymore – makes us extremely vulnerable to anything that could potentially disable our personal cars and trucks. While there is not much of a place for them on our roadways right now, it might not be a bad idea for all of us to keep some horses and an old-style wagon around, just in case we need them someday.

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