Can EMP Or A Coronol Mass Ejection Damage Your Car?

Can EMP Or A Coronol Mass Ejection Damage Your Car?
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Can An EMP Or Coronol Mass Ejection Damage Your Car?

There’s been much debate regarding the potential damaging effects of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) or a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) on automobiles.  During Soviet high-altitude nuclear tests over Kazakhstan in 1962, it was proven that even rugged diesel generators having no solid state parts were burned out by E1 EMP.  This was confirmed in an important international electromagnetics conference in 1994, when the Soviet General Vladimir Loborev stated the following regarding EMP damage: "…an electrical puncture occurs at the weak point of a system.  The heat puncture is developed at that point,under the action of the power voltage; as a result, the electrical power source is put out of action very often."  The fact that even diesel generators with no solid state parts were knocked out illustrates that even vehicles without an electronic ignition or other electronic components are not immune to a real world EMP.  Jerry Emanuelson, in his paper “EMP Effects On Vehicles” states: “The Soviet experience is a warning to keep critical electrical spare parts on hand, [even] for older vehicles.  This includes things like ignition coils, mechanical distributors, generators and starting motors.  In particular, any critical item with a coil of wire that is insulated using enamel or a similar substance may be prone to breakdown, and needs to have a replacement part on hand.  Also, as I have said on other pages, a good supply of automotive fuses is also critical.”

The 2008 EMP Commission did some testing on autos, but this test had some limitations.  First, it was a simulation, and simulations of EMP are not exactly the same as EMP caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon.  Second, the Commission stopped raising the EMP field intensity once a vehicle demonstrated any anomalous response, rather than continuing the intensity to the maximum level.  They did this to prevent further damage to the vehicles because they did not have the funds to replace them, as they were on loan from other government agencies.  Third, the test vehicles were less vulnerable than modern cars and trucks since they were older models.  Some of the cars were as old as 1987, and the newest was built in 2002.  Newer cars have a much higher number of microprocessors than a decade ago, and they use much smaller electronic components which operate at lower voltages.  This makes modern vehicles much more sensitive to voltage spikes, and therefore more likely to suffer damage from EMP.  Since the cars in the test were older vehicles, the damage was less than it would be using modern vehicles.  Though some of the vehicles were not damaged at all, the commission report states the following: At higher field levels [> 12 kV/m], 70 percent or more of the trucks on the road will manifest some anomalous response following EMP exposure. Approximately 15 percent or more of the trucks will experience engine stall, sometimes with permanent damage that the driver cannot correct. Similar to the case for automobiles, the EMP impact on trucks could trigger vehicle crashes on U.S. highways. As a result, many more vehicles could be damaged than those damaged directly by EMP exposure.”  So, although the EMP Commission tests were limited, even their tests proved that vehicles can be damaged.  As cars become more complex, its likely that the percentage of vehicles damages by EMP will be higher.

The most accurate results should come from recent testing using modern vehicles, such as that done at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, where they have a facility specifically to conduct testing of “Nuclear/Electromagnetic Environment Effects.”  This is the most valid source of modern information we can obtain on EMP.  At the White Sands Missile Range website,, they recently (2010) posted the following: 

“Testing at White Sands involves much more than firing rockets and missiles.  In fact, in the past few years, one of the missile range´s labs has done considerable testing for the automobile industry.  First of all, the military is very concerned about the battlefield survivability of its communications systems, vehicles, computers and other electronically based systems. If someone were to explode a nuclear bomb in the upper atmosphere, one of the byproducts of the blast is a very powerful electromagnetic pulse covering millions of square miles. This pulse induces an electrical charge in material which conducts electricity -- like the components of a computer or battle tank.  If the pulse is strong enough, the electronic components can be fried or severely damaged. It is very possible, then, to have such a high altitude nuclear explosion from which personnel will suffer no ill effects but they may be out of business because none of their electronic gear will work.”  Note that they say "may be out of business because NONE of our electronic gear will work.  They didn't make an exception for autos.  That’s pretty clear to me…cars can be damaged to the point where they won’t work.  They continue: 

“At White Sands, the Nuclear Effects Directorate has the capability to simulate and evaluate the various effects of a nuclear explosion -- including the electromagnetic pulse. For example, when the Abrams was being developed as the U.S. Army´s main battle tank it was put through extensive electromagnetic testing at the missile range. Its electronic components were protected by various "hardening" techniques during development so they would survive very powerful pulses. The test and evaluation done at White Sands validated the adequacy of the "hardened" design.” So, what that paragraph tells us is that even the M1 tank required shielding from EMP.  If such a robust, military-grade machine needs shielding, our modern vehicles are likely vulnerable as well.   

While electromagnetic pulses from EMP are not the same as a CME caused by the sun, some comparison’s can be made.  The tremendous electrical energy produced by both can have similar damaging effects on electronics.  In September 1 – 2, 1859, the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred.  This is referred to as the Solar storm of 1859 or the Carrington Event, when a massive (CME) was launched from the Sun and reached the Earth within eighteen hours — a trip that normally takes three to four days. Telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe experienced induced emf, in some cases even shocking telegraph operators and causing fires.  Most scientist believe that a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the solar storm of 1859 today would cause billions of dollars of damage to satellites, power grids and radio communications, and could cause electrical blackouts on a massive scale that might not be repaired for weeks, months or even years.  The threat is so serious that NOAA keeps watch on the sun 24/7, and has an alert system in place.  NOAA is clearly aware that the potential dangers are high…they define a G5 level geomagnetic storm this way: Power systems: Widespread voltage control problems and protective system problems can occur, some grid systems may experience complete collapse or blackouts. Transformers may experience damage.  Spacecraft operations: May experience extensive surface charging, problems with orientation, uplink/downlink and tracking satellites.  Other systems: Pipeline currents can reach hundreds of amps, HF (high frequency) radio propagation may be impossible in many areas for one to two days, satellite navigation may be degraded for days, low-frequency radio navigation can be out for hours, and aurora has been seen as low as Florida and southern Texas (typically 40° geomagnetic lat.).”  Note that major sun storm can even turn oil and other pipelines into current carrying electrical circuits! 

So in summary, I think we can conclude the following.  1) EMP or CME can and WILL damage some cars and trucks, sometimes permanently;  2) EMP/CME is more damaging to cars with advanced electronics, and will become MORE damaging as cars continue to become more and more reliant on sensitive electronics;  3) Even if EMP/CME doesn’t affect some cars, those people with cars that are still operable may become victim of crashes or traffic pileups.  Some roads may become impassable from failed vehicles, making any still operating vehicle useless if you can’t get out of the traffic.  Again, from Emanuelson’s paper: “The worst thing about nuclear EMP and motor vehicles is if you happen to be driving in heavy traffic when it happens.  In this event, simultaneously, a certain percentage of vehicles will stop running (perhaps temporarily), many more drivers will be instantly and simultaneously distracted by strange electrical behavior happening inside of the car, and (at the same instant) the traffic lights will abruptly go out or go into a flashing mode.”  At a minimum, this instantly creates the most fatal traffic jam in history…

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