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You’ve seen it in the movies — a figure sneaking up to a car with a crowbar and swiftly breaking in. Auto theft is a real issue. In fact, a vehicle is stolen every 41 seconds in the US. But thieves are getting more and more tech-savvy, and that’s why carmakers are catching up with more advanced technology. The evolution of car technology has led to a significant decline in vehicle theft.
Cars didn’t always start with actual keys, but now they do that and much more.
Today’s state-of-the-art automobiles have come a long way since the early 20th century. Back then, cars had to be started through a physical crank — a painful, tedious process, and a risky one. Pretty much anyone could start a vehicle if they had the strength to do it. In fact, Henry Ford had to chain his car to lampposts whenever he parked it so no one could steal it. That all changed in 1912 when Cadillac’s Henry Leland partnered up with Charles Kettering, the inventor of the first successful electric starter. Using a combined generator and electric motor, drivers could now use a key and a button to start the car and ignition.
But over the years, it became clear that keys could be stolen and even copied. Cars could be broken into and driven away. Soon enough, automobile manufacturers would develop more advanced keys and anti-theft protections. In 1968, Chevrolet added a code resistor into the key, without which you couldn’t start a Corvette. At the start of the ‘90s, Lexus introduced one of the first laser-cut car keys, which would be more difficult to copy. And starting in 1996, car makers implemented RFID ignition immobilizers — chips in ignition keys that use radio frequency signals to create a code that starts the car and activates the fuel pump. Hot-wiring a car and making copies of a key wouldn’t work. Theft of Mustangs dropped by 70 percent. But auto theft has continued.
The auto theft business is real, but it may be on the decline thanks to new technology.
The fact of the matter is, stealing cars is a lucrative business. Over 765,000 vehicles in the US were stolen in 2016, costing almost $6 billion. And it’s because the parts of a car can bring in a profit. “People will go out there and steal those kinds of cars, strip those parts off, and then bring them to the shops,” Sergeant Robert Wellman of the Detroit Police Department tells Vox Creative about so-called “chop shops.” “Depending upon what kind of cars you’re stealing and the things that you’re using them for, there is some profit there. If you’re doing high-end vehicles and you’re stealing them and then retagging them, everything that you make is profit.”
Auto theft hasn’t stopped. Older vehicles are always under threat, and thieves have become more savvy. But between 1991 and 2016, despite one small uptick, there was an overall 53 percent drop in auto theft in the US. Car manufacturers continue to innovate. Although 42 percent of stolen vehicles are typically not recovered, systems like OnStar* help track and locate them. Find out how in the video above.
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* Disclosure: OnStar plan, working electrical system, cell service, and GPS signal required. OnStar links to emergency services. Visit onstar.com for details and limitations.