Cars are expensive. Other than a house, perhaps, few purchases we make will compare to a new car. And just like any other expensive asset, a car brings with it a secondary cost -- the risk of theft. In some laid-back parts of the world, locking the doors may be enough to ward off the threat. Everywhere else, it's a good idea to arm yourself -- and your car -- with some security.
On the bright side, car thefts have been steadily decreasing in recent years; fewer than 1 million cars were stolen in the United States in 2009 [source: NICB]. That's the lowest number in two decades, and car security has come a long way during that time period. For instance, more than 30 car models from General Motors come equipped with OnStar, a car safety device that provides everything from turn-by-turn navigation to stolen vehicle tracking and remote ignition blocking [source: OnStar]. Technological marvel that it is, OnStar's just the tip of the iceberg -- a bevy of high-tech car security systems track cars via GPS or radio, and can even kill the ignition from afar.
Modern security systems run the gamut from pre-installed helpful components like OnStar to top-of-the-line options like LoJack. Read on to learn about 10 amazing car security systems, including affordable everyday solutions, military Smartrucks and DNA-recognition systems straight out of the future.
OnStar may have the strongest advertising presence of any car security solution on the market. GM has successfully telegraphed the unique benefits of OnStar in its commercial campaigns: Much like the advertisements for Broadview Home Security, which feature its operators standing by to assist homeowners who've been burglarized, OnStar ads commonly depict helpful operators contacting drivers after an accident. But how does OnStar work, exactly?
OnStar systems operate over a digital cellular network in the United States, and its customers can contact the service 24 hours a day with the push of a button in their cars. Lost on some country back road? Connect with an advisor, and he or she will give you turn-by-turn directions to get you home. That's one element of OnStar's "three-button system" for communication. With an accompanying plan or pre-paid package of minutes, OnStar also provides hands-free calling with the push of the second button. The third button places an emergency call directly to an OnStar "Advisor."
In a real emergency, such as a car crash, air bag sensors or other sensors built into an OnStar-equipped vehicle can automatically alert an operator to the condition and location of a vehicle, which OnStar then uses to direct emergency responders. But that's an awful lot about emergencies; when it comes to plain old security, OnStar's pretty impressive, too. OnStar can unlock your car if you lose your keys or honk your horn if you're lost in the vast sea of a parking deck; the system tracks stolen cars via GPS, and operators can block the ignition of newer models and remotely slow them down during high-speed chases.
OnStar is far more than just a security system -- it's more of a comprehensive service system, and its mobile apps for iPhone and Android make features like remote door unlocking even easier. Comprehensive comes with a cost, of course -- in OnStar's case, that means $199 a year for a basic "Safe & Sound" plan or $299 a year for the "Directions & Connections" plan, which adds in turn-by-turn navigation.
LoJack is one of the most famous examples of car security that uses radio tracking to hunt down and recover stolen vehicles. Most tracking devices share the same principal: Small transceivers are hidden somewhere inside the car and can be tracked by an outside source tuned to the proper frequency. Because GPS receivers require line-of-sight to an orbiting satellite to acquire a positioning fix, systems like the LoJack have the advantage of tracking cars in some places GPS will fail.
Due to close ties with law enforcement organizations, LoJack homing devices actually show up in police computer systems. LoJack units are tied to a car's unique vehicle identification number (VIN), so when a car is reported stolen and the VIN is entered into the state police crime computer, that automatically triggers the LoJack Unit in the vehicle [source: LoJack].
And LoJack stands by its product with a 24-hour recovery guarantee. Basically, if your car is stolen and can't be found within 24 hours, you get your money back -- for the LoJack, anyway [source: LoJack]. The downside to LoJack's police partnership is that the recovery system is only good in certain counties in the United States -- and it's expensive. The basic version of LoJack costs $695, but owning one could potentially save you up to 35 percent on automobile insurance [source: LoJack].
Now that we've touched on OnStar and LoJack, two of the biggest names in car security, let's take a look at how BMW competes against GM's OnStar juggernaut.
BMW began offering its own version of OnStar, BMW Assist, with its 2007 series of cars. BMW Assist includes most of the features that make OnStar so popular: automatic collision detection, communication with a BMW response specialist and remote door unlocking. BMW also claims it will work with police to help with stolen vehicle recovery. Because the system uses a GPS system for tracking and a cellular system for communication, much like OnStar does, BMW can potentially work with police to provide GPS tracking data [source: BMWUSA.com].
While BMW Assist is free for the first four years in some 2007 and later vehicles, BMW charges a $199 yearly fee from then on [source: BMWUSA.com]. Not all BMWs include Assist as a standard feature: The 2011 128i Coupe, for instance, only gets BMW Assist in a premium package [source: BMWUSA.com].
In a slightly less practical -- but way cool -- implementation of security features, BMW's X5 Security Plus is the only publicly available vehicle from a large-scale car manufacturer to offer Class 6 bulletproof body and glass. The Security Plus looks very similar to a normal BMW X5, but its armor plating can shrug off bullets from an AK47, and several vehicle options like sirens and front- and rear-cameras make it far more secure than your average car [source: Autoblog].
If buying a brand new armored luxury car sounds like overkill (or it's simply out of your price range), it may be time to consider more affordable options. Despite its name, the next security system doesn't come with armor plating -- but with vehicle tracking, it gets the job done.
CarShield essentially outfits older cars with a security and diagnostics system akin to OnStar or BMW Assist with a small adapter. By plugging CarShield into the diagnostics port of any vehicle manufactured since 1996, it can access the vehicle's computer system and transmit data to a phone or Internet-connected device using cellular technology. CarShield monitors the car's battery and heat level and can detect other problems like oil pressure and tampering with the CarShield unit. The integrated GPS also provides for vehicle tracking, and CarShield can be configured to provide updates or alerts about vehicle status over e-mail or SMS [source: CarShield].
CarShield is one of the less expensive examples of telematics on the market today. Telematics refers to the field of telecommunications and informatics -- the long-range communication of data about a car. If you own a car manufactured post-1996 and want to enhance it with telematic abilities, CarShield costs $349 and requires a $159 annual fee to cover the system's wireless services and roadside assistance. Just like OnStar, CarShield has advisers who can provide emergency assistance. CarShield was a finalist for the 2010 Best Aftermarket Device Telematics Award [source: PRLog].
Did your car come with a keychain pager, a small device that lets you lock or unlock your car doors from afar? They're a basic accessory for new cars and provide convenient ways to make sure your doors are always locked. The Commando FM-870 is a souped-up keychain pager. It can unlock car doors without a key and start the engine remotely from 2,500 feet (762 meters) away. The Commando includes a small device with an LCD display that monitors doors and trunks open/closed and can detect hard impacts to your vehicle [source: Commando].
Forced entry or engine startup will trigger an alert to the Command FM-870's LCD display. In addition to its remote start and keyless entry functions, the Commando component that's installed in the vehicle also includes a car alarm that can be programmed to trigger based on unauthorized vehicle access. The multi-function Commando FM-870 sells for $169.99 on Commando's Web site. The installation process for the Commando requires some manual wiring so make sure you or someone you know is capable of installing it before making a purchase.
While the Commando FM-870's LCD-equipped remote helps it stand out from the crowd, it's far from the only multi-function security system on the market. Next, let's take a look at the Viper 1002.
If the Commando piqued your interest, Viper's 1002 security system is definitely worth looking into. The package comes with two, four-button remotes that operate over radio frequencies up to a distance of about 1,320 feet (402 meters) -- a shorter range than the Commando. The Stinger impact sensor detects pressure applied to the vehicle and can respond to lighter occurrences with an alarm chirp rather than a full-on blast of sound from the six-tone siren system. For instance, anyone who happens to lean against your car on the street will be treated to a light warning instead of a blaring alarm that disturbs the entire neighborhood. The Failsafe Starter Kill, which you would activate after parking and getting out of the car, is designed to keep the engine on lockdown. Once enabled, it won't start, even with a key.
The convenience options like remote engine start and keyless entry or trunk opening are here, too [source: Viper]. While Viper set an MSRP of $299.99, the Viper 1002 security system retails for considerably less at a number of stores: Amazon.com sells it for $112.
Now that we've gotten a nice look at multi-function security systems, let's take a look at a more focused device with a singular purpose: keeping that engine cold, no matter how hard car thieves try to go for a joyride.
U.K.-based Cobra produces quite a range of car accessories, from headrest-mounted DVD players to parking aids. Looking for GPS tracking systems? Cobra's got them. But Cobra also sells a car security device known to stop thieves in their tracks. The Cobra 8510 immobilizer's name alone should give you a pretty good idea about how this car security system works. It's accredited by the Thatcham organization, which tests and rates vehicle security systems. Immobilizers work by disabling components of the engine that are necessary for startup. By shutting down the ignition system, immobilizers make it extremely difficult to hotwire a car and start it up without a key [source: CarsBuddy]. The Cobra 8510 comes with two keys that can deactivate the system -- as long as you keep them safe, your car shouldn't be going anywhere without you in it.
The Cobra arms itself automatically -- without a key, car thieves will have serious trouble making off with any car they break into that's fitted with an immobilizer. And compared to GPS solutions or other multi-feature car security solutions, immobilizers come at a low price. The Cobra 8510 costs about $65 on Amazon.co.uk.
Cobra's ConraTrak 5 takes the benefits of several disparate Cobra security systems and bundles them together into one powerful system, which earned it a Category 5 placement in the Thatcham system, which means it must effectively help you recover the vehicle if it's stolen [source: Thatcham]. That means the CobraTrak 5 system, which Cobra calls one of its "top of range systems," features vehicle tracking that works in a very unique way.
An automatic driver recognition (ADR) system forms a link between your car and a card you carry on your person. If the card is outside the car, the ADR system is armed and instantly alerts Cobra's operating center if the car is moved. If a thief somehow makes off with your keys but doesn't grab the ADR card, they're toast: The ADR system will be aware that the card isn't in the vehicle with the car thief. Cobra can also initiate remote engine immobilization. Once a stolen car has been shut off, it won't turn on again. Coupled with GPS tracking, remote engine immobilization increases the chances that police will be able to find and recover a stolen vehicle [source: Cobra].
This is a high-end, pricey security system for car owners who live in Europe. Cobra charges £649 ($1,050) for the system, plus £199 ($322) for an annual monitoring fee [source: Cobra]. If that sounds too rich for your blood, check out our next form of car security. It may not come with GPS tracking or remote engine immobilization, but it will make it a whole lot harder for a carjacker to sell your stolen vehicle to an underground chop shop.
Every vehicle has its own vehicle identification number (VIN), a series of digits unique to that car. The VIN is located on the dashboard, where it's viewable through the car's windshield. Covering the VIN to hide it from prying outside eyes is one way for car thieves to hide a vehicle's identity. Once a car is stolen and makes it to a chop shop, kiss it goodbye; it'll be carved up and sold for parts, and a single VIN number won't do much good. But through a process called VIN etching, you can apply that one-of-a-kind identification number to your car windows, making it difficult and expensive to sell the car off for parts.
VINshield is a product that makes it easy to apply VIN serials to all of your car windows. A do-it-yourself kit includes stencils with your VIN and a chemical agent to apply to the window to etch the identification code into the glass. The two warning stickers that come with VINshield may do an even better job of warding off potential thieves. VIN etching can't track your car by GPS, or immobilize the engine or set off a blaring warning siren, but it can discourage carjackers and make your car more difficult to sell illicitly. Best of all, a single car VINshield kit sells for a mere $19.95, far less than the majority of car security systems [source: VINshield].
VINshield wraps it up for practical security measures, but that's not the end of the road. Some of the most amazing high-tech security systems aren't exactly on the market yet -- in fact, some only exist in fiction. Let's take a look at what futuristic car security Nissan and Lexus have been working on.
The goal of Nissan's Vision 2015 project is to develop new car concepts and technologies through the year 2015. Some of those new technologies are aimed at reducing the deaths and injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents. One of Nissan's Vision 2015 concept cars embodies that goal to the fullest, integrating advanced technology into a car to prevent drunk driving accidents -- and drunk driving, period [source: DUI.com].
Sensors in the car's seat and gearshift can detect alcohol through the driver's perspiration and prevent the vehicle from being driven. Additionally, a camera watches the driver's eyes. If it detects signs of drowsiness or drunkenness, the car issues a voice alert to the driver and tightens the seat belt as a wake-up call [source: DUI.com]. The car can even detect suspicious driving activity that could indicate someone falling asleep at the wheel -- drift out of the lane and the car may give you the same alert and seat belt tuck [source: DUI.com].
While its futuristic concept car may not be hitting the highways just yet, Nissan's already incorporated a drunk driving message into its current navigation systems [source: DUI.com]. In another decade, Nissan's vision may be an everyday reality, and car security systems will be as good at keeping us safe from ourselves as they are preventing outside threats.
What makes certain car accessories unsafe (or even illegal)? Keep reading to discover what makes certain car accessories unsafe and even illegal.
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