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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Car Safe Electronic Thieves

I started keeping my car keys in the freezer, and I may be at the forefront of a new digital safety trend.

Let me explain: In recent months, there has been a slew of mysterious car break-ins in my Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles. What’s odd is that there have been no signs of forced entry. There are no pools of broken glass on the pavement and no scratches on the doors from jimmied locks.

But these break-ins seem to happen only to cars that use remote keyless systems, which replace traditional keys with wireless fobs. It happened to our neighbor Heidi, who lives up the hill and has a Mazda 3. It happened to Simon, who lives across the street from me and has a Toyota Prius.

And it happened to our Prius, not once, but three times in the last month.

The most recent incident took place on a Monday morning 10 days ago. I was working at my kitchen table, which overlooks the street in front of my house. It was just after 9 a.m., when one of my perky-eared dogs started to quietly growl at something outside.

I watched as the girl, who was dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, hopped off her bike and pulled out a small black device from her backpack. She then reached down, opened the door and climbed into my car.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I ran outside and they quickly jumped on their bikes and took off. I rushed after them, partly with the hope of catching the attempted thieves, but more because I was fascinated by their little black device. How were they able to unlock my car door so easily?

When the police arrived, they didn’t have much of an answer. (The thieves didn’t get away with anything; after all the break-ins, we no longer keep anything in the car.) I called Toyota, but they didn’t know, either (or at least the public relations employee didn’t know).

When I called the Los Angeles Police Department’s communications desk, a spokesman said I must have forgotten to lock my car. No, I assured him, I had not. But his query did make me question my sanity briefly.

I finally found out that I wasn’t crazy in, of all places, Canada.

The Toronto Police Service issued a news release last Thursday warning that thieves “may have access to electronic devices which can compromise” a vehicle’s security system. But the police did not specify what that “device” actually was.

Thieves have been breaking into and stealing cars with the help of electronic gadgets for several years now. Jalopnik, the car blog, has written about a “secret device”used to unlock cars. And dozens of other websites have told stories about burglars hacking into cars. As these reports illustrate, and videos online show, in some instances thieves are able to drive away with the cars without needing a key.

Still, I continued my search. Diogo Mónica, a security researcher and chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Public Visibility Committee, said that some sophisticated thieves have laptops equipped with a radio transmitter that figures out the unique code of a car’s key fob by using “brute force” to cycle through millions of combinations until they pick the right one.

But none of the contraptions Mr. Mónica or others told me about seemed to be what those teenagers used.

A more likely answer came from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a trade group for auto insurers and lenders, which issued a warning last month about a “mystery device” that can emulate a key. In one YouTube video, the group compiled surveillance footage that showed thieves using the gadget to open doors with ease.

Similar reports have surfaced on The Register, a technology news site, and on car message boards, about a simple $30 device made in China and Eastern Europe that allows thieves to break into and steal BMWs. Since I don’t own a BMW, that wasn’t right, either.

I finally found what seems like the most plausible answer when I spoke to Boris Danev, a founder of 3db Technologies, a security company based in Switzerland. Mr. Danev specializes in wireless devices, including key fobs, and has written several research papers on the security flaws of keyless car systems.

Old Cars Safer

Shane Coulter wants his 16-year-old daughter’s car to be as safe as possible when she takes to the road. But like many older vehicles, the 2008 Jeep Wrangler that he bought for her lacked many high-tech safety features, like a rearview camera, that are increasingly found in newer cars.

But that didn’t mean he had to be left out of the technological revolution. Audiovox makes a rearview camera that can be added on.

“I actually put it on my daughter’s Jeep,” said Mr. Coulter, who lives in Warner Robins, Ga.

The rearview camera is one of the most popular of a growing list of add-on devices and services that promise to bring modern features to aging jalopies.

“Lane departure and collision warning, pedestrian warnings, high-beam control and traffic sign recognition — all of those can be retrofitted in a customer’s car,” said Elad Serfaty, a vice president at Mobileye, whose technology is built into a variety of vehicles from BMW, Volvo and other carmakers that offer collision detection and prevention.

Consequently, many car accessory companies are joining the driver assistance trend. Garmin, hoping to resuscitate flagging sales of portable navigation devices, has incorporated such technology in its $400 nüviCam LMTHD. The navigation device has a built-in video camera that scans the road ahead, offering not only directions but also chimes and yellow icon warnings whenever a driver drifts out of the lane or starts tailgating.

Usually cited as a major distraction to drivers, smartphones are also being enlisted to create alert systems. One of the earliest and most extensive driver assistance apps was iOnRoad, now owned by Harman International. Using a smartphone’s built-in camera, the app monitors the car’s speed and distance from the vehicle ahead, sounding a loud alarm if the distance shrinks too quickly or the driver fails to brake sufficiently.

Using the app can feel like having a digital back-seat driver that chides you every time you drift too close to the fog line. But iOnRoad’s constant pings can work to adjust driving habits, like improving driver alertness and increasing the following distance between cars.

“If you have a teenage driver, the app will allow you to analyze driving habits,” said Alon Atsmon, vice president for technology strategy at Harman. “It can log events, such as tailgating and lane departure warnings, then score his driving compared to other drivers around the world.” The basic app is free; a premium $5 version adds dashcamlike video recording and speed limit sign recognition.

Many customers decide to upgrade the older family car when it gets handed down to a new teenage driver, according to Keith Imbriglio, the manager at Long Radio, an installation firm in Hadley, Mass.

Among the most popular add-ons, he said, are rearview cameras like the one Mr. Coulter installed on his daughter’s Wrangler. They all but eliminate blind spots behind vehicles.

The Audiovox ACA900, which Mr. Coulter purchased, is a $129 wide-angle backup video camera with an ultrasonic sensor. It mounts in a rear license plate bracket and sounds proximity warnings and displays a picture in a dashboard LCD screen or replacement rearview mirror.

When the car is put into reverse, the rearview picture appears, including distance and parking guidelines. If the driver gets too close to a pedestrian or nearby obstruction, the system beeps loudly and powerfully and shows a red “STOP” alert on the video monitor.

The biggest problem with the systems, Mr. Imbroglio said, is that they take a lot of time to install. Labor can add $70 to $100 to the price for consumers, many of whom may balk at sinking more money into an aging vehicle with tens of thousands of miles on it.

So some drivers opt for do-it-yourself tracking and car monitoring devices that simply plug into the onboard diagnostic or OBD-II port under the dashboard of cars built from 1996 onward. The proliferation of OBD II devices include models like those pitched by insurance companies promising to lower rates for good driving habits or those from Silicon Valley start-ups looking to capitalize on the connected car trend.

Supply Chain and Logistics

The holiday hiring season is underway and it looks like it’s getting bigger. TargetCorp. TGT 0.82% says it will boost its hiring of temporary seasonal workers by 40% this year, adding about 100,000 jobs, the WSJ’s Khadeeja Safdar reports, in the latest sign of growing confidence in the retail sector. Target’s hiring in its logistics operations won’t be as strong as last year—4,500 more workers are coming in after adding 7,500 to its distribution centers in the 2016 season—but Target had opened three fulfillment centers a year ago that it was staffing up. The scramble for holiday-season workers has been intensifying steadily in recent years, fueled by the growth of online shopping and by what companies say is trouble filling the warehouse positions and getting new workers trained. Retailers have been pushing more goods into those distribution centers: The National Retail Federation says imports into the biggest U.S. ports jumped 5% from June to July and 9.2% from a year ago.

Seadrill Ltd. is looking for a swift pass through a bankruptcy to make way for new money to save the fleet of one of the world’s biggest offshore drilling companies. The business controlled by Norwegian shipping magnate John Fredriksen filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Texas, the WSJ’s Peg Brickley reports, in the latest fallout from falling oil prices and an upheaval in energy markets. The company operates 68 rigs and drillships for customers including Total SA, TOT Petrobras Brasileiro SA and Exxon MobilCorp. The company is looking to exit bankruptcy in less than a year, with a longer timeline on $5.7 billion in bank loans and more than $1 billion in new financing to see it through the current downturn. A Texas court was due to review a bankruptcy plan that would leave shareholders with 2% of the business while giving Mr. Fredriksen and his allied Centerbridge Partners generous slices of the new business.

 The European Union’s top executive thinks President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies could open trade opportunities around the world for Europe. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says countries around the world “are knocking at our door in order to sign trade agreements with us,” the WSJ’s Valentina Pop and Emre Peker report, and that trade deals with Mexico and South America’s Mercosur countries are in the works. Those talks and Mr. Juncker’s confident outlook reflect a transition in the tenor of world-wide trade as the White House advances a new American agenda while the EU looks for stronger economic links from Asia to Latin America


Federal and state officials have given truckers until December to install electronic monitors that track their time on the road. The new devices are meant to make highways safer by keeping drivers from overshooting the hours they are supposed to drive.

But some truckers who get paid by the mile could see their incomes drop with a more accurate accounting of the time it took them to make a delivery. And lower pay could exacerbate a driver shortage in an industry with a reputation for high turnover.

 “You’ll see smaller carriers leave the business,” said Rod Nofziger, chief operating officer for the Missouri-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has 158,000 members.

Since 2003, truckers have been limited to 11 hours of driving during a 14-hour on-duty stretch. Waiting at a loading dock or getting stuck in traffic counts against that time. That tempts truckers to say in their logs that deliveries happened faster than they did. Driving-log violations are the largest share of citations that police issue during truck inspections, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says.

 Even modest fudging can add up to hundreds of hours of unlawful driving. Road-safety advocates say off-book driving pushes up highway accident rates. The motor-safety agency estimates electronic logs will save 26 lives and prevent 562 injuries annually.

“The only reason anyone would oppose this technology is to skirt the hours of service,” said Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations in Virginia.

Some smaller companies that operate just a few trucks and independent drivers are resisting the switch.

He and other smaller fleet operators say allegations of cheating on paper logs are exaggerated and the safety benefits overstated.

With drivers paid an average of 40 cents a mile, small operators say the $1,000 cost for an electronic log and the monthly service fees of around $40 per truck to process the data is a financial burden. Small fleets and owner operators account for about half of the 1 million heavy-duty trucks for-hire in the U.S.

Acknowledging those concerns, the consortium of state and federal law enforcement agencies overseeing the change said last month that they will fine truckers found without electronic logs starting in December but won’t force their trucks off the road until April. Fines for log violations are based on state statutes and vary from state to state.