Imagine the classic Hollywood scenario - an interstate packed with cars. Above, a blinding flash fills the sky. In unison, every single car stops dead. Is it an alien invasion?
No. It's an EMP attack that has left every single car paralyzed on the interstate.
But let's take a step back from this flight of fancy and examine whether a strong enough electromagnetic pulse can affect your car, and what you can for do to prepare yourself for an EMP attack.
The lesson of these strange times is that you must protect yourself, your loved ones and your means from disruption. We’re not just talking about the worst-case scenarios of yesteryear. Even the smallest town has procedures for dealing with natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires and floods.
But how do you prepare for the unknown?
Your finger on the electromagnetic pulse
It may not be possible to prepare for every specific eventuality, but it’s possible to identify your vulnerabilities. Since the beginning of society, humankind has needed tools and transport to survive in a community and a family unit.
In modern times, our tools have become electronic. Our cellphones, computers and records - all electronic. Gone are the days of storing important records, photos and media on analog storage like paper and videotape. This is the age of digital.
The force that can really nix electronics is electromagnetic pulses. These are bursts of electromagnetic energy, which can be naturally occurring, such as in lightning storms or solar flares. Or they can be manmade, for example as the result of a nuclear detonation.
If a hostile power wanted to knock out the electrical grid of an entire continent, they might employ a high altitude nuclear explosion. In one such high altitude nuclear test named "Starfish Prime", electronics more than 500 miles away in Honolulu and New Zealand were damaged, while 300 street lights in Oahu, Hawaii were fused.
We’ve already discussed how to keep your electronics safe in the event of an EMP.
Because we no longer travel by horse and buggy, it’s worthwhile asking the question “will an EMP knock out a car?"
Before we tackle this, it’s worth taking a look at history and examining that our vulnerabilities can be put at risk from anywhere at any time. Even from our very own sun.
A matter of time running out
The Carrington Event was the largest ever recorded geomagnetic storm. From the 1st to the 2nd of September 1859, a coronal mass ejection sent plasma hurtling towards earth. The resultant magnetic activity caused sparks to fly off telegraph poles, while some telegraph operators experienced burns and electric shocks. Some devices that were unplugged were still operable for hours, and an aurora illuminated the night sky as far south as the Caribbean.
In 1989, a solar flare knocked out a vast chunk of the Canadian electrical grid, while a Carrington-level event occurred in 2012, but missed the earth by a matter of days.
In both the grand scope of the universe and the complexity of the modern world, the anomalous is the new normal. The only thing that is predictable is the unpredictable nature and scope of events. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So best be prepared.
Besides an uncertain universe, we face unpredictable and hostile geopolitical forces that act with increasing impunity on the world stage. The stark reality of our time is that, at the time of writing, the doomsday clock is set at 23:58:20 - the closest it has ever been to midnight (i.e. total cataclysm) - not even during the Cuban missile crisis did the world's experts consider us this close to the brink.
Now more than ever is the time to be prepared for anything and everything, including an EMP attack.
EMP effects on cars
Since Henry Ford rolled the first Model T off the production line on October 1, 1908, the internal combustion engine has not really changed. The automobile is still mainly a mechanical beast of pistons, cogs, and machinery. This is the kind of brute force engineering that is immune to the effects of an EMP.
Zero electronics is the ultimate protection from EMP.
But modern cars are not exclusively composed of the industrial musculature of the machine alone. Electronic systems have become part and parcel of modern vehicles.
An EMP blast may affect the electronics to varying degrees according to a study by the United States EMP Commission. But they will not hobble ALL vehicles. This study tested 50 cars that were manufactured between 1987 and 2002. These cars were then exposed to an array of EMP blasts up to 50kV/m. The EMP effects on cars were varied.
The result? Only three of these cars shut down while they were driving. Just one vehicle would not restart, while the other two restarted afterwards without any hitches.
The interference caused by the EMP blasts on these cars was exclusively in the electronic systems, and such interference was mainly of nuisance value that would not in themselves pose a fatal threat to the driver or passengers. These included disruptions in the turn signals, the radio signal, the headlights, and brake lights.
The reason for the variance in electronic interference in different cars is that the chassis of the vehicle acts as a faraday cage. This is an earthed metal screen surrounding the electronics to shield it from electrostatic and electromagnetic charges. As chassis vary from vehicle to vehicle, and the positions in which electronics are mounted and wired, the effectiveness of the shielding also varies. By and large, the chassis itself provides EMP protection for vehicles.
So the good news is that generally speaking, all vehicles are EMP proof vehicles.
Are Tesla cars EMP proof?
Many people are turning to electric cars as a more sustainable, responsible, and fun option to the traditional internal combustion engine. So what if your car is nothing but the science fiction automotive machine that is the modern electric car? None of the cars tested by the EMP commission were pure electric cars. So what happens when an EMP event hits a Tesla?
Short answer - you’re going to have to #AskElon to REALLY make sure because there are two schools of thought about that.
Since Tesla cars rely on electronic systems for the self-drive, ignition system, and navigation, and a large part of their locomotion, it’s logical to conclude that a sufficiently strong EMP blast will hobble a Tesla to the point of inoperability.
However, because the car is not grounded it may be the case that no damage is done to the car. In the same way that birds sit on power lines and do not get electrically shocked, there is no difference in potential. In the same way, a Tesla sits on rubber tires, so there would be no difference of potential that would affect the electronic components of the car if there is adequate shielding of the electronics.
This is in much the same way that airplanes getting struck by lightning do not experience interruption to the electronic circuits.
The shielding of the electronics that are in place in modern cars is very good and continues to improve. If we can put a Tesla into orbit, we can definitely incrementally improve the shielding of the electronics.
But Teslas don't run on love and fresh air. They need to be recharged at charging stations. For an electric car like a Tesla, it's no good telling you how to EMP-proof your car if the entire grid itself is vulnerable to the ravages of a hostile electromagnetic pulse weapon.
Nuclear war - what to drive in a worst-case scenario
In a worst-case scenario where a massive nuclear device is exploded at an altitude calculated to cause as much EMP damage as possible, there is pretty much nothing that can be done.
In this scenario, the person who is driving the gasoline rust bucket might become king of the road strewn with disused Teslas and vehicles of all makes and models. At least until those vehicles are simply restarted - a short reign is better than no reign I guess.
However, the miles and miles of cables and wires that make up the electronic grid could transmit the sudden spike in voltage to every transformer, leaving a trail of destruction on its path. Charging stations for electric cars would become nothing more than cenotaphs of a bygone era of aspiration, and a marker for the days that are hopefully yet to come once again.
There is nothing to do about this when it's too late. Peace and love is the faraday cage that will insulate us from the manmade disaster of future conflict.
Final thoughts - so what car would survive an EMP strike?
As it turns out, almost every vehicle is an EMP-proof vehicle.
The modern car is tested and designed to survive extremes of conditions, well beyond any reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) eventuality. With a host of failsafe systems in the event of electrical or mechanical failure.
Contrary to intuition, electronics being integrated into cars is not a new thing. Cars have had on-board computers since the Volkswagen electronic fuel injection system as far back as 1968. That’s right. The year before we put a man on the moon, we put a computer in the automobile.
Most cars will survive an EMP attack, but the vehicle that is most likely to survive is an older model diesel vehicle with minimal electronics. For a surefire way to shield from EMP, building a faraday cage garage for your car would be a useful project. Effectively this would be an enclosure built from a conductive material that blocks electromagnetic fields, thus providing more than adequate shielding for your car and other electronics.
Speaking of EMP protection, if you're interested in specially designed Faraday Cage cases, which will protect your more vulnerable electronic equipment, be sure to check out our Faraday Cases guide.