Forty-two years ago, I learnt to drive a car, a spotty-faced 17-year-old, lurching along the leafy lanes of West Sussex, my Father patiently instructing me, his face impassive as he hid his grimaces as I crashed the gears. He did relax a little once I had mastered the co-ordination of gear lever and clutch pedal, and he seemed to enjoy getting me through my driving test. He must have been reasonably good, (or maybe I was) because I passed my test first time.
My first car was an Austin 1100, built at the BMC Longbridge plant in 1965, so by the time I bought it in 1977 it was 12 years old, and had about 55,000 miles on the clock. Fantastically easy to drive, I enjoyed owning it for a year or so after my test, finally replacing it with a 1969 Vauxhall Viva SL90 – which to be fair wasn’t nearly as good mechanically, but looked flashier to my 19-year-old eyes.
These two vehicles did have something in common – and that was their complete lack of anything except the most rudimentary security. There were only two barriers to stop a would-be thief from stealing my cars – the simple key locks on the doors, and the simple ignition key.
This was state of the art at the time the cars were built. A thief could quite easily force the door lock, and by reaching under the unsealed dashboard and bypass the ignition switch, thus activating the car systems and enabling the vehicle to be started. The car could then be driven away.
Statistics show that from 1968 thefts of vehicles soared, primarily as a result of “Joy Riding” (also known as Twocking, – Taking Without Owners Consent), and theft to obtain parts for resale.
To combat this, UK legislation was introduced in January 1971 to compel manufacturers to fit steering column locks to all new vehicles. Most manufacturers incorporated these into ignition switches making it much more difficult to steal a car. Once this requirement filtered into the market, thefts of vehicles began to slow a little, but thefts from vehicles continued.
During the early years of my car ownership, alloy wheels were extremely popular, and as such, opportunistic thieves would simply jack a car up, remove the wheel nuts, and steal the wheel, leaving the car propped up on bricks.
Industry quickly countered this with locking wheel nuts, so the criminal community moved on to stealing car audio systems. Again, industry reacted by building the radios into the car dashboard in such a way as to make them virtually permanent.
Modern cars are extensively fitted with high technology systems, many of which are controlled by buttons built into the steering wheel. Additionally, the steering wheel also contains an airbag, and is an expensive item – a quick check on E-Bay will show second hand steering wheels, complete with airbags and column fetching in the region of £600!
So, have we come through a complete circle? In the 1970s the introduction of Steering locks, and later immobiliser chips built into ignition keys cut theft. This was reinforced by central door locking, and on-board security alarms.
As vehicles developed, we saw the introduction of remote locking, remote starting, and GPS tracking systems for cars.
The downside is that as we have become more reliant on high technology, the bad guys have become equally adept at hacking into systems.
We are just starting to hear about cloning devices that capture the digital signature of your remote key fob. Once this digital code has been hijacked, it may be used to unlock and then drive your pride and joy away.
So – what’s next?
My car has an integrated radio, locking wheel nuts, an immobiliser, a steering lock, and an alarm. But the bad guys can still target my car.
Thinking about this, there are a few simple precautions that may be taken.
If locking or unlocking your car in a public place, you may be better off by using the mechanical lock fitted into the door handle to unlock the car, thus denying any opportunistic thief the ability to skim your codes.
Secondly, Maybe invest in a steering wheel lock immobiliser such as the Disklok® which will prevent the theft of your steering wheel, and coincidentally makes the electronic capture of your unlock codes meaningless.
So, there are some areas where the current levels of electronic and computer aided vehicle security fail, and then it’s back to good old-fashioned mechanical protection.
Welcome to Brave New World.
Mark Charlwood© 2019
Note: I am not sponsored by Disklok topromote their product(s). Other Steering Wheel Immobiliser Locks are available: