By Jim Kerr

“Immobilize”. “Stop dead in their tracks”. That’s what the Police, Government and car owners would like to do to car thieves. Stolen cars affect everyone. Insurance rates go up. Police are busy with property crimes and that time could be used for more serious problems. Car owners are inconvenienced and often lose money when trying to replace a stolen car with another vehicle. So what is being done? More than you probably realize, but it’s typically behind the scenes.

Early attempts at theft prevention now look almost comical. Door lock buttons were changed to a smooth design instead of having a knob on top so “coat hangers” couldn’t unlock the car. Locking steering wheels and shifters were a big improvement but could often be overcome with a simple screwdriver if you didn’t mind a little damage to the steering column. Even aftermarket devices that locked the steering wheel to the brake pedal at first seemed good, but what many people don’t know is that steering wheels are designed to bend during a collision to conform to the driver. It is a simple matter to bend the steering wheel, remove the devise and then bend the steering wheel back again before driving off.

Car thieves don’t want to spend a lot of time or attract attention when stealing an automobile. If it can’t be taken quietly in less than a couple minutes, they will often look for easier vehicles, so any devices that delay a theft do help. In the 80s, GM introduced a simple anti-theft system on a few of their vehicles. It used a key with a resistor pellet mounted in it. Contacts in the ignition switch touched the resistor pellet and a module measured the resistance. If it was correct, then the module would engage the starter relay and signal the computer to deliver fuel. If the resistance was wrong, the car was shut down. However, dirty or worn pellet contacts frustrated many owners, so a better system was needed.

Ford started using coded keys in the early 90’s on popular vehicles like the Taurus. A microchip embedded in the key was energized by a module under the dash when the key was placed in the ignition. The key then sent a changing digital code to the module, and if the code was correct, then the module would signal the engine computer to provide fuel injection. This system is typical of what we find on many new vehicles and is often referred to as an immobilizer. Unless the correct key is used, the car is immobile.

In Europe, immobilizer systems are required. In North America, the Federal Governments would like to make them mandatory. There is some resistance from the auto manufacturers, as they claim the systems would add cost if installed on all vehicles and that these types of systems have already been installed on many of the vehicles that car thieves are after. You might be surprised to find out what vehicles car thieves are after. According to Statistics Canada for 2000-2001 models, the Hyundai Tiburon tops the list, while the Acura Integra, Honda Civic, Hyundai Accent and Volkswagen Golf are close behind. The Dodge Dakota and Ram Pickups also make the top ten. In the United States, 2003 statistics show the Toyota Camry, Ford F150, Chev pickup and Dodge Caravan in the top ten. Notice there is not one exotic car in the top ten!

Stolen vehicles are often taken for a joy ride but some may be stripped for parts, serial numbers changed and resold in another part of the country or shipped out of the country and sold overseas. According to Statistics Canada, about one quarter of stolen vehicles are never recovered. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates car theft costs Canadians $1 billion a year.

The manufacturers have made changes, such as adding VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) stickers to major body panels for easier tracking of stolen parts, but immobilizer systems seem to be the most effective way to reduce auto theft. Replacing or adding an ignition key for an immobilizer system involves reprogramming of the vehicle computer to accept the new code. This is done at dealerships with diagnostic scan tools and access to VIN data bases.

The latest developments include the vehicle communication systems, where the VIN is transmitted between multiple computers on the vehicle network. If one module has the incorrect VIN, the vehicle doesn’t start, or for audio security, the radio may not play. This prevents thieves from quickly installing their own engine computer and immobilizer key.

It is nearly impossible to stop a skilled car thief if they want your vehicle badly enough. I have heard of examples of electrical systems shorted out to drain batteries and kill alarm systems. Then the vehicle is towed. One was even lifted out of a locked compound with a crane and onto a transport truck. Fortunately, very few of us drive exotic automobiles that would justify the expense of stealing and rebuilding an automobile so it can be sold again, so sleep easy, keep your car locked, and the keys safely in your pocket.

Statistics Canada: Top 10 most frequently stolen cars in Canada (2000 – 2001 models)

1. Hyundai Tiburon (two door)
2. Acura Integra (two door)
3. Honda Civic Si (two door)
4. Hyundai Accent (two door)
5. Volkswagen Golf GTI (two door)
6. Honda Civic (two door)
7. Honda Prelude (two door)
8. Dodge Dakota (four-wheel drive)
9. Dodge Dakota (two-wheel drive)
10. Dodge Ram 1500 (four-wheel drive)

National Insurance Crime Bureau Statistics 2003 Top 10 Stolen Vehicles in U.S.

1. 2000 Honda Civic
2. 1989 Toyota Camry
3. 1991 Honda Accord
4. 1994 Chevrolet Full Size c/k 1500 Pickup
5. 1994 Dodge Caravan
6. 1997 Ford F150 Series
7. 1986 Toyota Pickup
8. 1995 Acura Integra
9. 1987 Nissan Sentra
10. 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass

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