In 2020, U.S. consumers purchased 14.6M new cars and trucks. At the same time, 873,000 vehicles were stolen, an increase of 9.2% over 2019.
That’s why new vehicle owners are increasingly turning toward theft recovery systems to protect their investments. The benefits of these systems are numerous.
They send an alert if the car is towed or stolen and, if the latter, share the vehicle’s GPS location with law enforcement to facilitate recovery. GPS also seamlessly allows owners to find a forgotten parking space or a tardy teenager (who may have turned their phone off). Car owners with theft recovery systems benefit from insurance discounts. They also receive limited warranties for cars that are stolen and not returned.
Dealerships often sell these systems as part of the suite of additional services (gap insurance, warranties, etc.) they offer to customers when purchasing a new vehicle. The sale generates additional revenue for the dealer and helps consumers protect their new purchase from theft. Many companies provide these solutions, so the question becomes which one is best for dealers and consumers.
There are three categories of theft recovery systems based on how they connect to the vehicle:
Hardwired systems require time-consuming professional installation by the manufacturer’s staff or other highly trained technical personnel at the dealership. They can take up to 30 minutes or more to install, generating high cost for the dealership. These devices are spliced into the car’s electrical system and use the car’s battery for power. The downside of this method is that some of these GPS units (either through design flaws or because of poor installation) run down the vehicle’s battery and damage the electrical system, sometimes resulting in significant damage to the battery and inconvenience to the owner.
In addition, some consumers report being refused warranty service on their battery or other systems because they claim the aftermarket install of such systems voids their vehicle’s warranty. Others report being asked to remove the system before warranty service can be provided.
Jake Thiewes of Out Motorsports reported that he was sold a truck with a wired solution, even when he had explicitly asked for it to be removed. “The wiring job was sloppy, with no solder or heat shrink used,” he posted. “Simply twisting the wires together and leaving them bare is the laziest way to install electronics. Even at 16, I knew to wrap my connections with electrical tape at a bare minimum.”
Many dealerships pre-install their vehicle inventory with these devices in the hopes of increasing revenue, which results in many systems driving off the lot unpaid for and unused by the new vehicle owner. Though this represents a financial loss for the dealer, many accept this loss because it is more complex to remove the system than to let it drive away. But it also leaves the dealer open to potential liability issues. If this unauthorized aftermarket device causes any problems with the vehicle’s performance or, worse yet, causes an accident, then the dealer could be on the line for millions in damages.
As electric vehicles (EV) play a more important role in the market, many OEMs are starting to forbid the connection of aftermarket devices to the EV’s electrical system to avoid any mileage range reduction, a metric that is critical to safety and customer satisfaction. That does not bode well for the future of hardwired devices for these vehicles.
OBD2-connected theft recovery systems minimize changes to the vehicle’s wiring by connecting through the onboard diagnostics port, a standardized port manufacturers created to enable easy readout of key vehicle information for service purposes. In recent years OBD2 facilitates usage-and-behavior-based insurance and GPS tracking as well. But, similarly to hardwired systems, poorly designed or defective OBD2-connected systems may also cause battery drain.
In addition, some manufacturers are starting to void warranties for vehicles with OBD2-connected aftermarket devices connected. This is not likely because of any damage they may cause, but rather because manufacturers value the data that comes from their vehicles and consider it to be proprietary intellectual property used for service, data modeling, autonomous driving, and more. Because of this, OBD2-based solutions may get locked out of vehicles at some point as well.
The human factor also plays a role in how smoothly these systems operate. Garages servicing these cars usually require access to the OBD2 port and remove any connected devices so they can connect their equipment. This sometimes results in them forgetting to reconnect the GPS device, which – unbeknownst to the vehicle’s owner – then no longer works or requires reconfiguring to work again.
There is a new generation of wireless systems (like the recently launched RecovR) that are not connected to the vehicle in any way. They are self-contained, with the GPS, cellular modem, and battery in a single unit. Wireless solutions are far easier to install, requiring a simple pairing between the unit and the vehicle’s VIN number, usually done in less than a minute. They require significantly less technical expertise to activate and generate no cost when a new buyer chooses not to purchase because they can easily be returned into inventory for the next vehicle that arrives on the lot.
Because wireless devices are not connected to the vehicle’s systems, they have no potential to cause battery drain, void warranties, and no risk of generating liability issues like wired devices do. And because they are randomly placed within the vehicle, they are more difficult for thieves to detect and disable. Any technical issues that might occur with these systems are easily resolved by the dealer swapping out the old locator device for a new one, which owners can do in minutes.
So why have such devices not come to market sooner? Because the technology and the engineering required to ensure robust battery life was not available until today. Global security and engineering solution company Kudelski IoT worked for more than a year to fine-tune the RecovR locator device to ensure a five-year lifetime for the device.
Though hardwired systems and, more recently, OBD2-based systems have dominated the theft recovery market to date, they contain significant risks and downsides for both dealerships and consumers. Wireless theft recovery systems allow for streamlined installation processes and better cost control for dealers. They also offer increased long-term consumer satisfaction for new vehicle buyers, ultimately resulting in greater adoption and less theft.