It's a commonly used device in sci-fi, including the upcoming show Revolution, which features an EMP-like device shutting off all the world's electronic devices.
EMPs are most commonly known to come from nuclear blasts, though they are possible to generate independently. Ever since the 50s, when nuclear war panic and doomsday fantasizing and preparing began, the effects of an EMP on our modern electronic technology has been studied, with varied results. The common wisdom is that in the case of an EMP, most cars since, say the 80s and up that rely heavily on engine management computers will be severely disabled, likely permanently.
But the more research I did, the more I realized that my daydream was founded on bad data, and that guy selling that moldy Jetta is probably full of shit, which, of course, would be a first for Craigslist. We tested a sample of 37 cars in an EMP simulation laboratory, with automobile vintages ranging from 1986 through 2002. Automobiles were subjected to EMP environments under both engine turned off and engine turned on conditions. Just to make things more confusing, there's been EMP devices made specifically for car-disabling purposes, like this one covered by our pals at Gizmodo.
For your regular car, the easiest protection is to park inside a giant Faraday cage, like a metal garage.


Early nuclear testing anticipated the EMP, and shielded electronics accordingly, since the main effect of an EMP is that electronic equipment can be disabled or permanently damaged. I've tended to believe this myself, and the concept has been the foundation of a recurring frustration-daydream I have when stuck in traffic: A nuke detonates in the sky, sending a massive EMP propagating throughout the city. The biggest evidence to suggest that most cars will probably be just fine without any modification comes from a study done by the EMP Commission specifically to evaluate the effect on national infrastructure in the event of an EMP burst.
No effects were subsequently observed in those automobiles that were not turned on during EMP exposure. Approximately 10 percent or more of the automobiles exposed to higher field levels may experience serious EMP effects, including engine stall, that require driver intervention to correct. The Discovery Channel show Future Weapons drove a Taurus right under an EMP device, and it seemed to kill the ignition system, though ancillaries like dash lights and power windows remained working. If you're really, really paranoid, then an ideal EMP-proof vehicle actually isn't too far off from what our Craigslist guy who started this whole thing is selling: some sort of older diesel.
And maybe smaller amber lanterns for the turn indicators, though I'm not crazy about running in and out of the car to turn them on and off to blink.
The testing was conducted by exposing running and nonrunning automobiles to sequentially increasing EMP field intensities.


On a very basic level, a Faraday cage is a conductive enclosure that causes electromagnetic force to travel along the outside of the structure and leave what's inside mostly alone. Since diesels have no ignition system at all, they don't really have to worry about any sort of electromagnetic frippery, and a diesel can be made to burn almost any kind of oil, so it'd be useful for the likely troubled times to follow an EMP event. In an actual EMP exposure, these vehicles would glide to a stop and require the driver to restart them. Lurking on survivalist forums, I did learn that a microwave oven can make an excellent Faraday cage, so that's where you want to jam your laptop and iPhone if you think an EMP attack is coming. The ultimate result of automobile EMP exposure could be triggered crashes that damage many more vehicles than are damaged by the EMP, the consequent loss of life, and multiple injuries.



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