New car alarms can call home and track thieves

With the rollout next month of anti-theft devices that will phone home as well as use global positioning technology to follow a stolen car, the eternal struggle between car thieves and the police will take on a new dimension.

After-market car alarm systems from manufacturers, including Clarion Co. Ltd., Omega, and Audiovox Corp., will go on sale in February and include anti-theft alert systems that can be set up to call any phone number, send a page, or send an alert to any handheld device when the alarm goes off.

Included in the system, designed by San Francisco-based Televoke Inc., will be a global positioning chip that can transmit the position of the vehicle on a map to the owner’s desktop PC or use text-to-speech technology to give the owner position updates by phone.

Systems are expected to start at about US$595, with the first year’s service included. Re-subscribers to the service can expect to pay less than $10 per month, according to Televoke founder and CEO Rick Bentley.

Televoke will run the service at hosting centers around the country.

But although the anti-theft devices may stop amateur car thieves who steal cars for a joyride, professionals on the right side of the law doubt if it will stop the pros on the wrong side.

“It depends on the triggering device, but when all else fails the smart thieves are using tow trucks,” said John Lawlor, a former lieutenant at the Boston Police Department and now the technical advisor for the National Public Radio show Car Talk.

Lawlor, who was also the advisor to screenwriter Scott Rosenberg for the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, a film about the car theft business, said there is big money in parts.

“The sum of the parts is greater than the whole,” Lawlor said.

Estimates vary, but some experts say a $30,000 car can be worth as much as $80,000 in parts. “You don’t even have to steal the car; there’s a really big market in air bag modules,” Lawlor said.

As far as overcoming an electronic GPS (Global Positioning System), Lawlor said thieves would most likely disable the antenna with tin foil.

Lawlor said the new system may cut down on kids taking cars for joyrides, but car theft today is much more geared to big dollars. “It used to be bad in Massachusetts, with kids taking cars for joyrides, but everyone is a professional now,” he said.

Another long-time car consultant, Marty Schorr, president of PMPR, a Sarasota, Fla.-based consultancy, agreed.

“In the old days, guys [in the neighborhood] used to steal cars and bring them out to a central place and they would be sold,” Schorr said. “Now it’s a network of businesses with some sold for parts and others shipped oversees.”

General Motors also includes an anti-theft service in its OnStar-enabled cars. But it requires the use of a cell phone, which makes the service more expensive, according to Rob Enderle, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group, in San Jose, Calif.

“Buying a phone for your car is a bit much,” Enderle said. “Televoke uses the core components of a phone that takes the cost out of it.”

In fact, Televoke’s CEO said what is actually used is the Cellular Control Channel Network. “This is what turns your roam light on or makes the phone ring,” Bentley said. “We never open a full voice channel, and so we can pay much less money than full access. Our packets are 50 bits in size.”

Cutting down on joy riders may be sufficient reason to install the system, but the anti-theft device can also be used to alert parents if their child is taking the car faster than predetermined speed or leaves a specific geographic area.

Bentley has plans to take the technology beyond cars as well.

“I’m waiting for Moore’s Law to catch up with the GPS cellular combination to make the devices smaller,” Bentley said. “Getting them small enough to track pets and children – that is where I get very excited.”