Car Theft Group Test - Britain's Most Secure Cars

With car theft an ongoing problem, we tested seven car security systems to find out how easy it is to get into them and drive away without consent...

Car security

The UK is in the midst of an ongoing car theft epidemic. Although crimes of this type declined slightly in the 2019-2020 financial year, from 114,660 the previous year to 113,330, the latest annual figure is still the highest recorded since 2008-2009. A new theft claim is being made every eight minutes, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI). 

One reason for the high number of thefts is believed to be the now-widespread availability of keyless entry systems on cars. A spokesman for the ABI says: “The fact that you’re unable to know exactly how the vehicle was stolen unless it is recovered [which happens in a minority of cases] means it is difficult to specifically attribute a numerical ‘extent’ to which keyless systems have caused the rise, but insurers and the police agree that the increase in the number of keyless vehicles on the road has played a big role, particularly because they tend to be higher-end vehicles.”

How do keyless systems work?

Car security

A large number of new cars have keyless entry either as standard or as an optional extra, and there are thousands of second-hand vehicles already on the road with this technology.

To provide car owners with added convenience, keyless entry systems sense when the keys are close and unlock the car doors when the owner pulls on the door handle or touches a sensor on it. This means parents carrying children and drivers carrying large or bulky items don’t have to scrabble about in bags or pockets for keys. In fact, when coupled with a keyless start system, which enables the car to be started by pressing a button, without the need to put a key in the ignition, owners can permanently leave their car keys in a bag or pocket.

The key emits a code, or a series of codes, which are picked up by antennae in the car’s bodywork. However, this code can also be grabbed by a scanning device and sent to a booster unit that repeats it next to the car door to open it. Because the car thinks it’s the owner who wants access to it, the other security systems on the car, such as the alarm and engine immobiliser, aren’t activated when the car is unlocked.

If the car has a keyless starting system, this same booster can also be used while pressing the start button to fire up the engine and drive the car away. This is seen as a second level of vulnerability by security experts, because thieves can get a car to start without having to damage it and don’t need the physical strength to break an ignition lock. 

Are keyless cars easier to steal? 

Car security

Ron Cliff, of car key specialist Edilock Group, claims manufacturers have known for years that keyless entry and starting systems make vehicles more at risk of theft. “An independent investigation highlighted the vulnerability of keyless systems a decade ago and the car industry was informed,” he says. “Whenever there is a vulnerability in software, a patch should be created – but this has never been done.”

However, this is refuted by industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Chief executive Mike Hawes says: “Vehicle manufacturers are continually investing and developing new security features – including motion-sensing key fobs and other technologies – to try to stay one step ahead of criminals. This is an ongoing and extremely costly battle.”

Some car makers have indeed introduced additional security measures to prevent some or all of their cars from being stolen. For example, Jaguar and Land Rover have fitted some models with ultra-wide-band radio technology, which transmits over a wide range of frequency channels so that thieves can’t trace the code. The likes of Audi, BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz have taken a different approach, putting motion sensors in their keyless fobs that stop them from sending out a code when they’re not moved for a certain period of time.

However, while motion sensor key fobs provide great protection when they’ve been put to sleep, they don’t provide any more security than a standard keyless entry fob if they’re moving – such as when they’re in a pocket or handbag. For this reason, some car makers have two methods of activating the sleep mode on the fob: automatically after it hasn’t been moved for a set period of time, or immediately by pressing a button on the fob. Fobs that can’t be deactivated immediately might be open to being scanned by thieves hanging around near car service departments or outside owners’ homes.

Which are the worst areas for car crime? 

Car security

Motion sensor technology has been praised by David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, who says most cars are stolen late at night when the key fobs have been left on a table or hook.

However, the majority of cars on the road are second-hand, and Jamieson blames keyless technology for a massive increase in car thefts in his region in the past three years.

“In 2018 7452 cars were stolen in the West Midlands; that’s nearly three times as many as in 2015,” he says. “I’ve been saying for a long time now that manufacturers have taken their eye off the ball when it comes to vehicle security. It’s a disgrace that buyers are being sold vehicles with 19th century levels of protection.” 

Jamieson started a national campaign last year to get car makers and the Government to take steps to combat theft. As well as fitting motion sensors to all key fobs so that they go to sleep when they’re not being used, he believes car makers “should take responsibility for providing free legacy updates for owners of older cars”. He also believes onboard diagnostic ports on cars should be better protected so they can’t be hacked into so easily.

The SMMT is calling on the Government to take “action to prevent the open sale of devices used by criminals to steal cars”. But many garages and other organisations use these devices legitimately, including companies that will unlock an owner’s car if they’ve inadvertently locked the key inside.

So, how does your car stack up for security? To find out how secure a selection of new and nearly new models are, we asked two security experts to use digital technology to get into and drive away in seven vehicles. 

Next: How we tested the cars for security >

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