When Cars Fight Back Against Thieves

True Cases of Attempted Car Theft Thwarted by Technology

police called for car theft

Every 45 seconds, a car is stolen in the U.S., for a total value of $4.9 billion in stolen vehicles during 2015. And as vehicles have become more sophisticated, they’ve often inadvertently been left exposed to car theft in new ways.

“Who needs the hotwire when you’ve got the laptop?” the victim of a recent car theft told CBS Pittsburgh.

Technology – specifically, connected car technology – is not only changing how consumers experience and interact with their personal vehicles, it’s also changing the way criminals steal them and, perhaps most surprisingly, new technology is changing the way law enforcement protects vehicles, too.

We’ve explored how vulnerable smart vehicles can be to hacking and how much consumers ought to worry. And now, the auto industry is responding by finding new ways to stop would-be car thieves in their tracks – and it’s working.

high-tech car theft by hackers

Police Blotter: 4 True Cases of Attempted Car Theft Thwarted by Technology

1. BMW locks car’s doors with thief inside until police arrives to arrest him

In November, a Seattle-area driver accidentally left a BMW key fob inside the vehicle overnight and the car was stolen from a parking garage. When the owner discovered the theft, she called 911. The police then contacted BMW, which tracked the car’s location. The thief was asleep inside the car, and BMW locked the doors until officers were able to make their arrest.

Adding an extra level of insult to injury (and displaying expert trolling skills), BMW played a line from The Watchmen to the would-be thief: “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!”

BMW’s law enforcement partnership captured the media’s attention, but it’s not the only case of thieves thwarted by in-vehicle tech.

2. Vehicle owner catches thief in action, locks him inside

A car owner in South Africa left his vehicle unlocked to run a quick errand. He returned to find a would-be thief inside his car searching for valuables and other items to steal.

The owner kept his distance and used a remote key fob to lock the thief inside the car until police arrived.

3. Car thief accidentally kidnaps backseat napper

In one recent case, two friends were driving near Nashville when the driver pulled up to a gas station and went inside, leaving his napping friend inside the car. The driver took the key fob but left the car running. A pair of would-be thieves thought they saw an opportunity for an easy mark and hopped in the car where they were so surprised to find the sleeping passenger that they immediately bolted. The passenger, now awake, thought his friend might’ve been kidnapped and called police while driving away to look for his friend. The driver, now finished with his errand, returned to an empty parking lot and also called police to report a theft and kidnapping. The two friends and police were able to resolve the situation without further incident, but the would-be thieves were never apprehended.

The whole mix-up is a good reminder that even though keyless entry systems can allow certain situations (a running, unlocked car with no key fob inside) it’s still important to practice good car safety: never leave your running, unlocked vehicle unattended.

4. Lenders remotely cut off engines for drivers who are late on payments

A few years ago, reports began popping up of subprime auto lenders equipping vehicles with automatic shut-off devices. Lenders used these telematics-powered devices to remotely prevent vehicles from starting if their customers missed payments. These “starter interruption devices” are supposed to have built in “safeguards,” writes CNN, but The New York Times found customers whose engines were shut off while idling at a stop light, and even one whose engine was suddenly cut while she was driving on the freeway – a life-threatening measure for missing a car payment by just a day or two.

When and how vehicles equipped with such shut-off devices are used is at the discretion of the lender who installs them, writes the Times, and some lenders are clearly less concerned with the safety of their customers than others. These devices, which are still quite popular, appear to only be used by subprime lenders and aren’t used as anti-theft devices. But, we can imagine automakers adding such capabilities to their cars as preventative anti-theft measures. And, perhaps technology like this could even deter would-be thieves. After all, who would risk stealing a vehicle that could be turned off at any time, and at any speed, from anywhere in the world?

prevent car theft with key fob

What Can Drivers Do to Protect Themselves?

In all of these cases, the police were contacted, meaning this new technology isn’t an excuse for vigilante justice.

In fact, individual drivers generally don’t have the ability to remotely lock would-be thieves in their cars; instead automakers with these types of capabilities operate the systems remotely. The BMW in our first example was a 550i and both the Remote Door Unlock and Stolen Vehicle Recovery are special vehicle features, meaning of course that not every connected car will have such capabilities, but it does appear to be a growing trend.

If your car isn’t built to offer high-tech anti-theft solutions, there are plugins available to perform similar functions, like Voyomotive’s soon-to-be-released anti-hacking app LOCKDOWN. The tech is designed to stop people from gaining access to your vehicle by hacking the keyless entry and ignition. Even if a thief has your keys, LOCKDOWN can stop them in their tracks, the company says.

Who would steal a car that could be shut off at any time, any speed, from anywhere in the world?

What Anti-Theft Tech Means for Car Insurance

Surprisingly, our research found that safe vehicle technology, including anti-theft systems, has very little impact on auto insurance rates: in fact, we found that anti-theft technology saves drivers less than 1% annually on their car insurance policies.

Even active anti-theft devices (like those used in the stories highlighted here) won’t save you much:

How Much Do Anti-Theft Tech Features Lower Insurance Rates?

Technology FeatureFunctionSafety or Security BenefitAnnual savings off national average auto insurance premium
Anti-theft: Active disabling deviceDisables the vehicle by making the fuel, ignition, or starting system inoperative and which requires a separate manual step to engage the deviceMinimal research, but Michigan Automobile Theft Prevention Authority says these devices provide “Minimum level of security”$7
Anti-theft: Passive disabling deviceDisables the vehicle by making the fuel, ignition, or starting system inoperative and which does not require a separate manual step to engage the deviceMinimal research, but Michigan Automobile Theft Prevention Authority says these devices provide “Optimal level of security”$11
Anti-theft: Tracking deviceFeatures electronic transmitters hidden in vehicle which emit signals to police or monitoring stations when the vehicle is reported stolenEffective in recovering stolen vehicles (NHTSA)$9
Anti-theft: Audible alarmMotion or impact sensors trigger a 120-decibel siren or alarm which can be heard at a distance of at least 300 feet for a minimum of three minutesEffective in preventing thefts, burglaries and vandalism (NHTSA)$6

See full report here.

The insurance industry may ultimately recognize the reduced risk of theft for vehicles with these technologies, so things could change. If cars are more difficult to break into and steal in the first place, we expect these benefits to eventually translate into auto insurance savings – most likely for comprehensive coverage.