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Standard recovery - the up-coming European standard on vehicle tracking systems. 25/12/2003
Vehicle thefts, particularly of high value cars and those intended to be taken abroad, are now a source of major concern to the police forces of Europe as well as insurance companies and vehicle owners. With the imminent expansion of the European Union eastwards and the resultant inclusion of a number of states with weak border controls, the problem is set to become more acute. In an attempt to deal with the issue, manufacturers have introduced a range of security devices designed to make the illegal physical removal of the vehicle as difficult as possible. The most recent development in this long evolutionary process is the introduction of tracking and recovery systems, known generically as After Theft Systems for Vehicle Recovery (ATSVR), for which CEN (Comite Europeen Normalisation) is shortly expected to publish a standard.

But why the need for a tracking and recovery system in the first place? Increasing levels of sophistication in vehicle security, particularly the introduction of the key-out immobiliser, have resulted in a significant rise in the threat posed to the personal safety of vehicle owners whose cars are stolen. Throughout Europe, insurance companies report that around 60% of all vehicle thefts involve the use of the vehicle's key - usually obtained as a result of burglary or robbery (which, by definition, involves violence).

Without the introduction of vehicle tracking as a means of enhancing security, the next step, already under consideration by some manufacturers, is the introduction of a biological element into the security loop. This would see fingerprint or iris recognition software being introduced into the immobilisation procedures and raise the spectre of drivers being kidnapped, simply to overcome the biological security feature.

"Along with other companies," said Chris Cooper, Director of Operations at NavTrak, "we have considered introducing biologically controlled security systems for vehicles and have rejected it for the time being because of the risks involved for the driver. But if the system were to be introduced by someone else, we would have to re-visit our decision." Vehicle tracking is therefore being seen as an effective deterrent to theft as well as a powerful tool in the recovery of stolen vehicles, which does not involve owners in additional risk. Some insurance companies are now demanding the fitting of the system to high-value cars as a pre-requisite to insurance cover.

Using a range of communications protocols, linked to either terrestrial or satellite positioning systems, System Operating Centres (SOC) receive and pass on (to the police), details of stolen vehicles and their current location. In Germany and South Africa, tracking systems allow for the remote degrading of engine power, permitting the vehicle's recovery with or without the thief. Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in the UK, liability concerns have meant that there are no immediate plans to follow the German/South African example although, within the last 12 months, advanced remote degradation systems have been made available in the UK which appear to satisfy the regulatory authorities.

But issues of legal liability were not the only concerns of the CEN working group (Working Group 14 of TC 278) in their attempts to reach agreement on a draft standard. The expectations of the police, service providers, manufacturers, insurance companies and end users were divergent and often unrealistic in terms of what could be achieved through the use of the available technology.

For the police, domestic crime is almost always of greater importance than offences committed outside their jurisdiction. They are judged according to their effectiveness in protecting the local community and calls on their time to assist foreign colleagues will, as a result, be given less attention. When this is added to the many other demands made upon their time, the level of commitment that individual forces can afford to give to a commercially purchased system of vehicle recovery, is limited. Nevertheless, crime is a core function of the police and they remain committed to dealing with all offences on a case-by-case basis.

The industry, including system manufacturers and suppliers, service providers and insurance companies tend to have a vastly different perspective on the problem and approach the development and deployment of tracking systems from the commercial stand-point. Crudely put, their aim is the maximisation of profit, an aim that is unlikely to carry much eight with law enforcement agencies.

Nor has it been possible to reach agreement on a fully interoperable system, principally because of the commercially sensitive nature of some of the technologies involved.

" It is this issue," said Alan McInnes, chairman of Working Group 14, "the difference between a range of technology solutions operating independently, and the concept of all systems being able to be read by all other system infrastructures across Europe which has created the greatest debate and delayed publication. We have reached a pragmatic solution through the ISO definition of interoperability which is to provide services and accept services from other systems and to use the services so exchanged to enable them to operate effectively together." This has involved a detailed look at how an ATSVR system might work beyond its own national borders. A number of systems currently on the market claim, for instance, to be able to track stolen vehicles throughout Europe but lack the wherewithal to enlist the help of local police in stopping the vehicle concerned. The CEN standard will require bi-lateral agreements between service providers so that contact with local police can be made by control centres, speaking the same language and familiar with the local geography.

"A (System Operating Centre) in one country could easily monitor the theft and location of vehicles in several other countries," said McInnes. "The police in the country where the vehicle is recovered may not agree to detain a vehicle and driver based on information from a non-police source outside their country. The standard lays down the procedures to be followed before a vehicle can be tracked and information passed through the 'home' police force to the police of the country where the car has been seen."

A survey of user-requirements conducted by the Working Group identified the need for any tracking system to be resistant to criminal attack. The current draft demands that the on-board unit and the antenna are covert and only accessible by removing vehicle trim. It also insists that transmission protocols contain proprietary codes to safeguard communications between the vehicle and the detection equipment. "Encryption techniques," said McInnes, "would be cost prohibitive." But there is little doubt that it is the technological ability to remotely degrade engine power which is potentially the most controversial and, at the same time, most effective means of vehicle recovery. In the Netherlands and in the UK, early attempts to introduce such a system onto the market were met with misgivings about the safety of road users. In both countries, this led to an investigation of how best the technology could be introduced. In the Netherlands and in Belgium, a trial system of vehicle tracking that includes the ability to switch off engine power in a few, very specific, circumstances has been in operation for the last two years.

In the UK, an investigation involving representatives of the police, Home Office and the then DETR (now the Dept for Transport), led to the publication of a set of criteria by the Police Scientific Research Department of the Home office (ref: PSDB 14/02). Many of the criteria have now been adopted for inclusion in the draft CEN standard. Again in the UK, system similar to the one currently in operation in the Netherlands and Belgium, known as CAT 5, is about to go on trial but without the option of remote engine degradation.

"There are no plans to introduce this element at the moment," said Martyn Randle of the UK-based motor vehicle research organisation, Thatcham, "although it is a potentially safe thing to do."

The proposed standard has been careful to lays down the qualifying factors that must be present before degradation takes place. Amongst these is the requirement that only the properly constituted law enforcement agency of the country concerned or some person authorised by them, may switch on the signal. In general the signal would use short-range radio interfaces and while it is not a requirement of the standard, some European states require that the vehicle should be in line-of-sight of the operator.

"A significant factor of short range systems is that the (police) must be sufficiently close to take action or the vehicle must be held by some authority - border control, port authority, road toll authority - to await the (police)," said McInnes.

For safety reasons, the device will not switch off the engine or have any influence on the braking, steering or safety of the vehicle. Subject to these requirements, a slow degradation of power that the engine can generate will be permitted by the standard and may take as long as 30 to 60 minutes until a steady low power state is reached. This would permit the driver to park the vehicle safely without endangering passing traffic.

To what extent, if at all, the recommendations contained within the draft standard survive the processes that lie ahead, is a matter of conjecture. But the paper is the result of four years work of a group of experts drawn from all parts of the telematics, law enforcement and manufacturing sectors. At least some of the criteria are the result of experience in countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the UK and is therefore unlikely to be easily dismissed. Indeed, much of the proposed standard deals with matters that are entirely uncontroversial and it is probably only the question of engine degradation that will be hotly debated in the press and elsewhere.

For further information, contact:
1. Martyn Randle of Thatcham on #44 1635 868 855 or E-mail:
2. Alan McInnes, Director of ACPO CPI Ltd and chairman of WG 14, Tel. #44 7946 604 201 or E-mail:
3. Chris Cooper, Director of Operations, NavTrak Ltd, Altrincham, Cheshire, UK, Tel: #44 161 929 5788 or E-mail:
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