Should manufacturers do more to stop vehicle theft? Updated rules could force them

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Samantha Sannella loves Jeeps – she’s had four in the last eight years – and she knows thieves covet them too. In fact, a Jeep disappeared outside his Toronto home.

“My previous Jeep – which I love, love, love – was stolen the first week I bought it,” said Sannella, who belongs to a number of Facebook groups for Jeep owners .

“I mean, every day someone posts that their Jeep was stolen.”

Yet when she purchased a new Jeep Rubicon, she was surprised when her insurance company required her to install an anti-theft device at her own expense or pay an extra $500.

“If so many cars are being stolen, it’s the manufacturers who should be installing them,” she said.

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According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, in 2022, claims paid for vehicle thefts exceeded $1.2 billion for the first time.

As thefts increase exponentially, owners and insurers say manufacturers should address known vulnerabilities in automotive technology that have been exploited by thieves.

Key stakeholders, manufacturers, insurers, law enforcement and all levels of government will seek solutions at a national anti-auto theft summit in Ottawa on February 8.

A man wearing a safety vest watches a forklift unload a stolen car from a shipping container.
Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at the Equity Association, watches as vehicles seized at the port of Malta and returned to Canada are unloaded in Montreal. (Michael Drapack/CBC)

How vehicles are hacked

Bryan Gast, vice president of the Equity Association’s investigative services division, which investigates vehicle theft and fraud on behalf of member insurance companies, said the standards need to be updated.

He said thieves are hacking into vehicles’ controller area network (CAN bus), which allows communication between various electrical components.

“So CAN bus attacks, reprogramming thefts, relay attacks, all of those things are not included in the current standard. So really the key is to build a vehicle and design a vehicle that has technology to prevent theft,” Gast said. .

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For example, before 2007, Transport Canada did not require vehicles to be equipped with an engine immobilizer, Gast explained. But when vehicles with keyless and remote start technologies were introduced, the safety standards recommended by UL Standards & Engagement (ULSE) became mandatory.

WATCH | The pressure is on for automakers to improve anti-theft measures:

Automakers are being forced to make vehicles harder to steal

At a summit on tackling car theft next week, automakers are expected to face more pressure to upgrade and install mandatory anti-theft devices.

Canada Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 requires all new vehicles manufactured or imported for sale in Canada with a gross vehicle weight rating of 4,536 kilograms or less to be equipped with an immobilizer system.

Gast said immobilizers were effective at first and thefts dropped, but they are now easily exploited by thieves thanks to new technology, so manufacturers need to update anti-theft measures.

“Everything else is reactive. If we can stop the theft in the first place, that’s a step forward,” he said.

According to Gast, there is a new standard that Transport Canada could adopt: ULC 338: Vehicle Theft Deterrent Equipment and System was published in July 2023 and specifically addresses techniques used by thieves.

“The updated scope also included aftermarket installation, as well as other updates to align with modern technology, like cybersecurity and CAN bus,” said Catie Talenti, customer relations manager. media at ULSE, which published the standard.

In a statement, Transport Canada said it “continuously reviews Canada’s standards, including monitoring how technology evolves, how that evolution affects federal standards, and whether those standards need to adapt to reflect changes modern technologies.

But automakers doubt whether adopting new standards is the solution.

Automakers say to target criminals

In a statement, Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association, which includes Ford Motor Company of Canada, General Motors of Canada and Stellantis, said increasing the risk of lawsuits is the way most effective deterrent to vehicle theft.

“And at the same time, inspection controls at exit from ports must be strengthened to prevent the flow of stolen vehicles to foreign markets by organized criminal organizations,” he added.

David Adams, President and CEO of Global Automakers of Canada.
David Adams, president and CEO of Global Automakers of Canada, says organized crime exploits myriad vulnerabilities in Canada, making us a source country for stolen vehicles globally. He says law enforcement is essential when dealing with well-financed organized criminals. (LinkedIn)

David Adams, president and CEO of Global Automakers of Canada, said suggesting the updated standards assumes automakers aren’t constantly upgrading and strengthening their vehicles’ safety systems.

“The real problem is highly organized, well-funded, technologically savvy crime exploiting a myriad of vulnerabilities in Canada, making us a source country for stolen vehicles on a global scale,” he says.

He cited the United States as an example, where vehicle immobilizers are not mandatory.

“We should have proportionately fewer vehicle thefts in Canada given the immobilizers required here – that’s not Canada’s experience.”

WATCH | Authorities knew where his stolen truck was, but it took 17 days to recover it:

His stolen truck had a tracker. It still took 17 days to get it back

A Toronto man installed a tracker on his truck and alerted police when it was stolen, but it took more than two weeks before police or anyone else took action. After an investigation by CBC News, the Canada Border Services Agency finally opened the container containing the truck 17 days after its theft.

Adams said problems include a porous port, lack of agents and the easy availability of devices to facilitate online theft. At the same time, he said making cars harder to steal increases the likelihood of more violent crimes like home invasions and carjackings, while potentially making vehicles harder to repair.

New technology, new challenges

Mitra Mirhassani is a professor and co-director of the SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Center of Excellence at the University of Windsor.

She said the CAN bus has been identified as a weak point for hacking into vehicle networks, and new technologies and global standards are being developed to increase security.

“But no system is ever 100 percent secure,” she said. “No one can claim that their cars are free from any safety defects.”

A smiling woman.
Mitra Mirhassani, professor and co-director of the SHIELD Center of Excellence in Automotive Cybersecurity at the University of Windsor, says no automotive security system is 100 per cent effective. (Submitted)

Modern cars are complex technological systems, she said, with features added for safety, convenience and fun.

“Wireless connectivity, infotainment systems, sensors, microcontrollers and other electronic parts, and all these add their share of challenges to total vehicle safety.”

Mirhassani said adding too many safety features could also impact a vehicle’s performance and increase costs for consumers. And the thieves would eventually find solutions.

“What I’m saying is there’s no silver bullet from a technology perspective to solve this problem,” she said.

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