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Cranking to a halt - is remote engine interference worth the effort? 10/1/2005
Remote engine degradation is back on the agenda as evidence emerges of a renewed interest by the automotive industry in ATSVR (After Theft Systems for Vehicle Recovery) technology. And while there continues to be some doubt about its future direction, there seems little doubt that the current spate of enquiries can be traced to the publication last year of the draft CEN pre-standard on vehicle immobilisation and rising concerns at high-value vehicle crime.

The principle of remote tracking and immobilisation is not, of course, new and has been around for at least the past 15 years. But advances in the enabling technologies and changes to the political landscape mean that it is now possible to think in terms of a workable system that has huge implications in terms of crime and road safety.

"Remote vehicle immobilisation," said Jeremy Worthington, a project manager with the UK-based SBD Consultants, "is perfectly feasible at the technical level."

In Europe, as elsehere, work is under way at both the administrative and political levels to find a way of implementing a system that would act as a major deterrent to criminal activity while avoiding the pitfalls of liability and reduced road safety. Several states, including Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands and the UK, have produced standards designed to minimize the areas of difficulty inherent in attempting to recover stolen vehicles in this way. In Geneva, the European EEC standards authority continues its 4 year re-drafting of the type approval document (Regulation 97) relating to vehicle alarms with a view to the inclusion of remote immobilisers as a separate arm of interest.

But even if they succeed, agreement on the circumstances in which remote immobilisers can be used will have to be reached with the global harmonisation body (Working Party 29 of the UN Economic Commission for Europe) who are unlikely to want to interfere with the current European legislation contained in EC Directive 95/56/EC. This stipulates that no vehicle may be immobilised if the ignition key is in the 'engine running' position, effectively preventing the use of the system until the driver has himself brought the vehicle to a standstill and turned the ignition (or the diesel equivalent) off(2). Certainly this is the position adopted by CEN TC 278 whose draft pre-standard closely follows both the Dutch/Belgium standard (TT03) and that of the UK (CAT5).

So how is it proposed that the system should work? The three European national standards all set down a detailed procedure of checks and balances that must be gone through before a vehicle may be tracked and ultimately immobilised. Under the UK's CAT5 system, there is an acknowledgement that in most cases the thief will have possession of the vehicle's keys. CAT5 therefore insists that owners be provided with a separate driver identity device whose presence inside the vehicle allows it to be driven without arming the tracking system(3). If the identity device is not present, the Secure Operating Centre is automatically informed and begins tracking the vehicle. The centre will also telephone the owner and check whether or not the vehicle is stolen. If it is, police will be informed together with details of its location.

While the vehicle is moving, any signal to immobilise the engine will have no immediate effect and it is only when either the ignition key is turned off or the vehicle has remained stationary for more than five minutes that the system will kick in.

"The trouble with this system," said Worthington, "is that it doesn't take account of what the police want to achieve. It is all about the recovery of the vehicle. The arrest of the thief is entirely incidental. One idea that has been looked at but is not yet in use is to prevent the vehicle from accelerating. Whenever the driver brakes, that becomes his new maximum speed, taking much of the danger out of police chases."

Will the idea catch on?

"We are not sure that the market is ready for this," said Valentina Marzili Area Manager for Cobra Automotive Technologies, Varese, Italy whose company is involved in the production of tracking and immobilisation technology.

There is no doubt that electronic systems in motor vehicles have been the cause of a great deal of soul searching by the industry. At the recent Converge 2004 conference in the US it was claimed that over 90% of warranty claims related to electronic systems in new vehicles. On top of that, the addition of an after-market tracking/immobilisation device will never, according to Worthington, pay for itself through reduced insurance premiums.

Given these concerns, it is hard to see where the technology is heading and unless there is a real upsurge in interest, the price of the equipment and its supporting service is likely to prove an insurmountable hurdle - police and insurance industry interest notwithstanding. In the end, the system may not only be too expensive but worse, ineffective. According to police figures, around 60% of all car thefts currently involve the taking of the car's own ignition key from the driver's home/office. Taking the driver identification device - which will almost certainly be kept close by - is not beyond the wit of even the dimmest of criminals.

Notes:
1. The changes to reg 97 are for remote immobilisers (as opposed to standard immobilisers, which are included in reg 18).
2. The engine start position is where the key sits when the cranking happens (starter motor running). 95/56/EC and reg 18 refer to the 'ignition on' position (or 'engine running' position).
3. The cat 5 requirement asks for a method of setting (and unsetting) the tracking system, but does not specify that it must be RFID. For example the BT Redcare system uses the Bluetooth identity of the drivers mobile phone (which unsets the tracking system). It is, in this article, referred to as a driver identity device, but there is no fixed terminology. However the identity device only has to be inside the vehicle to unset the tracking system - not necessarily near the ignition key.

 
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