Theft Prevention Invention: Cars Band Together

Cars in a parking lot could soon keep track of each other and, like sheep, complain if one of their numbers is stolen or meets a bad end.

At least, that's the intention of the Sensor Vehicle Anti-Theft System (SVATS) proposed by Sencun Zhu, an assistant professor at Penn State University. As he explained to, each car would be given a sensor — smaller than a coin — that would wirelessly call roll with other, similarly equipped cars in the parking lot within range, and pass on the results. If any car stopped responding to the roll call without issuing a goodbye signal when it was unlocked, the car herd would decide that the non-responsive car had been stolen and alert the lot's base station.

Parking lot monitoring could be accomplished without inter-car networking, but the use of networking allows for short-range, low-power transmitters, with longer battery life, Zhu said. The range of the sensor signal between cars will be about TK to TK feet (2 to 10 meters.

He anticipates that each car would have a master sensor drawing power from the car, and battery-powered slave sensors hidden through the vehicle. The slave sensors would take over if the master is defeated by hot-wiring. Mass-produced, the sensors should cost less than a dollar, and Zhu anticipates they could be handed out by commercial parking lots as a competitive measure.

Prevention, anyone?

The not-so-subtle drawback with all such theft-alert devices is that when the alert arrives the car has already been stolen. Experts on car theft avoidance, on the other hand, preach prevention, which, by Ben Franklin's calculations, is 16 times better than anything you can do after the fact.

Rather than rely on technology, pundits (such as urge the use of something called common sense. For instance: Lock the car door. Take the keys. Park in well-lit areas with a lot of foot traffic. Keep valuables out of sight. Do not hide spare keys in the car. Do not leave registration or insurance documents in the car.

If further measures seem warranted, get a steering wheel lock of some kind. The simple, visible presence of such a device will likely deter a potential thief.

Owners of particularly vulnerable or valuable vehicles might then want to escalate to an electronic immobilizing device that would prevent thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the car. After that, there's theft-alert and tracking devices, like Zhu's.

Grim fate

But deciding how much protection is merited is dicey. While expensive luxury cars would logically seem to be prime targets for thieves, the bad guys are actually more likely to grab the junker in the next parking space. That's because their prime targets are ordinary models of a certain age whose owners are getting desperate for parts — which the thieves supply by stripping stolen cars of the same model.

In 2006, the most commonly stolen vehicles were the 1995 Honda Civic, the 1991 Honda Accord, and the 1989 Toyota Camry, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. There were no luxury cars in the top 10.

Since the cars are stolen to be stripped, the recovery rate is only 63 percent, reports the NICB.

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