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Anti-Theft Systems No Key to Peace of Mind

July 04, 2001|RALPH VARTABEDIAN and JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Nobody knows how often California car owners lose their keys or lock them inside the car, but it's a conservative bet that it happens millions of times a year.

That little human failure is growing into a costly nuisance as the lowly car key becomes infused with anti-theft technology that can instruct the rest of the car's electronic systems to play dead.

Although the insurance industry likes the new breed of security technology, some experts say it is vastly overrated, failing to deter professional car thieves and costing motorists a bundle in the process.

General Motors was a pioneer in so-called passive anti-theft systems when it introduced the PASS-Key in the 1989 Camaro, offering an ignition key with a tiny resistor that contained a security code. If the car's electronic control system did not recognize the PASS (personalized automotive security system) code, it would disable the ignition system.

The new PASS-Key III system on 2001 GM cars has an embedded radio-frequency transponder, an electronic device that contains a security code read by the ignition lock. If the code does not match what the car's control module expects, the fuel pump and the starter motor are disabled.

Since 1989, PASS-Key and other manufacturers' passive systems have grown more complex. The early systems had a limited number of security codes, which professional car thieves quickly broke. Car makers have improved the key design and expanded the number of security codes.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry-funded research group, found in a study last year that passive anti-theft systems "are very effective in reducing theft loss," a researcher for the group said.

Indeed, many insurers offer discounts for cars that contain passive anti-theft systems.

But they don't always work the way they're supposed to. Sometimes, the security system turns against its owner. Consider the advice given in one current model owner's manual: "If the engine does not start and the key appears to be undamaged, try another key."

Of course, most people carry just one car key. Maybe if you're lucky, you can get a spouse or a friend to drive over with another key. "If the engine still does not start with the other key, your vehicle needs service," the owner's manual adds. Duh!

Worse is when you lose your theft-preventing key far from home. One of your few options is calling a tow truck and having the car towed to a dealership. As it turns out, a dealer or locksmith cannot supply a new key simply by knowing the VIN, or vehicle identification number. They have to have access to the whole car.

Some European manufacturers have developed a passive anti-theft system that includes a unique module and key set for each car. Buyers get a set of four keys--two master keys, a valet key and a wallet key, according to Kim Hazelbacker, director of the Highway Loss Data Institute.

If you lose a key, a new original master is shipped from the factory, but at some point, if you lose enough keys, you'll have to install a new electronic module for the car. This seemed to work just fine in Europe, where key loss isn't a huge problem, but it's not so great in America, according to Hazelbacker.

"Americans lead the world in losing their keys," he said.

That's a guess, but it's probably true. The Automobile Club of Southern California reports that 17% of its emergency road calls are from motorists who have lost keys or locked them in the car. The club won't say exactly how many calls it gets every year, but describes the volume as "in the hundreds of thousands." And the club is just one of a number of roadside service groups and doesn't even serve the entire state.

Replacing lost keys for passive security systems isn't cheap. The 2001 Cadillac DeVille PASS-Key, for example, costs $52 to replace at the dealership.

Not everybody is enamored with passive anti-theft.

"They are detrimental to the buyers," said Wynn Kessler, a veteran Orange County locksmith and head of Security Professionals of Orange County, a locksmith trade group. "The manufacturers are doing this only to make the buyer come back to the dealer. In many cases, the dealer sends the work back to a locksmith."

Kessler added, "The criminal knows how to bypass this stuff faster than we do. The criminal doesn't care if he breaks something in bypassing the system. But we have to be very careful not to damage the car."

On a positive note: The auto industry is working to help Americans who seem to lose their keys more often than they lose their cars. In some new PASS-Key III systems on GM vehicles, for example, a vehicle decoder can learn the transponder value of a new or replacement key. Up to 10 additional keys can be programmed for a vehicle this way, allowing somewhat easier replacement.

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Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com.

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