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Autonomous Vehicles

How Do We Protect Robotaxis & Other AVs From Theft? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I covered the problem of autonomous vehicle theft. No, the vehicles are not theft proof, and yes, there’s plenty of motivation to steal them. They may even be easier to steal than other vehicles because thieves have an opportunity to set traps.

Hardening The Vehicle

As I pointed out in the last article, we can’t depend solely on defensive measures to protect robotaxis from theft, because thieves will always find ways around it. That having been said, it’s still a useful way to increase the cost of stealing the vehicle and make the risk/reward ratio less favorable. If nothing else, defenses can buy time and increase the chances that the thieves get caught by other means.

Physical security for things like the vehicle’s battery connections, antenna wiring, and cameras probably needs some improvement for robotaxis. Probably the easiest thing for a thief to exploit would be the HV battery disconnect and 12v terminals under the hood (details on this are available at the Tesla First Responder page). It needs to be possible for responders to quickly pop the hood and access the disconnects, but not easy for a robotaxi passenger to get at it.

This can be partially accomplished by locking the software down and requiring a pin to open the hood in the MCU. First responders could still get the PIN from Tesla with a quick phone call, and the company wouldn’t give the PIN over if they couldn’t verify that they were actually talking to a first responder agency. It will also be necessary to add a locking cover over the manual trunk release, or relocate the release in robotaxi cars.

Finally, you’d want to activate an alarm in the event the manual hood release is used. This would make it harder to not be seen carrying out the theft of the vehicle.

Measures To Bust Thieves After The Grab

While thieves could quickly keep a stolen robotaxi from being able to communicate with Tesla, there are other methods that could be used to make getting away with the theft rather difficult and risky.

You’ve probably heard of “bait cars” that law enforcement use to bust car thieves, but with a little work every robotaxi could be a bait car.

One way to make a stolen robotaxi trackable would be to install a hidden transmitter in a random place in the vehicle. There are hundreds of places to stash a small transmitter in a vehicle. It could be hidden under a body panel and use the body panel as an antenna. It could be hidden behind any of the plastic bumpers, or under the vehicle. The sheer number of possible places to hide a tracker would make it nearly impossible to quickly remove it during the theft, and the transmitter can be rigged to run silent for a random period after a theft event to prevent the thieves from sweeping for it using RF detecting equipment.

All they have to do is miss one transmitter that puts a readable signal out at the chop shop, and the whole criminal enterprise is screwed.

Another thing that can foil thieves would be to take countermeasures against them. If the vehicle detects that thieves are covering its cameras, the vehicle could release tear gas or pepper spray to make working near it and towing it away in a covered/enclosed vehicle a lot more difficult. Nobody wants to drag a vehicle into a box truck or semi-trailer if the thing is emitting non-deadly but highly irritating fumes.

This might be a little wild for some people, but a vehicle that detects theft could use a “scorched earth” approach to make theft a lot less profitable. If a robotaxi starts destroying itself when it’s out of contact for too long with covered cameras, the thieves would have a lot less to sell once they got the thing to a chop shop. This is less than ideal, but by the time a vehicle makes it to the chop shop, it’s already basically a lost cause for the owner. By making it a lost cause for the thieves as well, they won’t want to steal robotaxis.

It also might be good to serialize nearly every component on the vehicle. If every battery cell, every interior part, every piece of glass, every body panel, and anything else that could be sold for value had serial numbers etched or stamped, it would be a lot harder to sell the parts. As soon as a stolen component comes up, the chain of custody could be traced back to the fence often enough to make that a tough business to be in.

More Imagination Will Be Needed

Even if we do everything mentioned above, thieves are creative and will find ways around the countermeasures. The ongoing effort to reduce all theft will never be perfect, but by continuing to adapt and keep things hard for the thieves, theft can at least be kept down.

One thing we can do is hire ex-convicts to help test and secure the system, in much the same way the FBI and banks hired Frank Abagnale after he defrauded people in dozens of countries (the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can gives a dramatized version of Abagnale’s story). Most people aren’t very good at thinking like a criminal, but we do know that successful criminals definitely know how to do that. Not only can we keep them from turning back to a life of crime by giving them legitimate ways to make a living, but we can also help secure robotaxis by having car thieves show us what the vulnerabilities are and expose new ones.

The thing we can’t do is assume that people won’t steal them, or that the presence of cameras on them will keep them from being stolen. While I’d like to believe all that, I live in a state that currently has one of the highest rates of auto theft in the country. I’ve also seen from volunteering in law enforcement that people aren’t all kind and good. If we fail to secure our property from them, they’ll gladly take it.

Featured image: a screenshot from a Tesla presentation about using autonomous vehicles on the Tesla Network.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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