Car owners guide to: Car Security > Trackers (Vehicle Location & Recovery)

Vehicle Tracking systems (also known as After Theft Systems for Vehicle Recovery, or ATSVR) are security systems that track the route taken by a vehicle after it has been stolen, and they'll do it irrespective of whether the vehicle is driven away or hoisted on to a low-loader or other transporter.

They accomplish this by use of communications technologies to supply a realtime stream of data to a monitoring centre (known as a Systems Operating Centre or SOC). As soon as the centre receives notification of a theft, whether via a system trigger alert or owner initiated alert, they will begin to track the vehicle and will inform the police via dedicated lines of communications. The SOC will help to pinpoint the location of the vehicle so that police can intercept and recover. Tracking devices have led to numerous spectacular seizures by the police of multiple vehicles held in hidden lock-ups.

In a sense, the need for vehicle location tracking came as a result of the success of government and car manufacturer initiatives on vehicle crime. As the technology and effectiveness of immobilisers and car alarm systems improved, the career thief found vehicles less easy to steal. Their counter punch to the sophisticated alarm systems was to simply defeat them the way the car's owner does - using the vehicle's ignition key - or to remove the vehicle on to a transporter and defeat the security system later, behind closed doors. This led to an increase in the number of keys stolen from homes and offices, along with an increase in the number of car-jacks while waiting at traffic lights or when returning to the parked vehicle.

These are potentially frightening and dangerous situations. It is never sensible to resist if you find yourself face-to-face with a thief, however much you may be unwilling to relinquish what is yours. Even the most precious of possessions is nothing compared to the threat of serious injury or even death at the hands of an adrenalin-high thief. Fortunately there is also a large element of risk for the thief when confronting someone at the wheel of their car, or when breaking into your home. They don't want to be spotted or challenged, as it may slow their escape. So while opportunists seeing car keys just inside your home may grab and run, thieves are more likely to take bigger risks only where the prize is bigger - that is, where the vehicle is more desireable.

Track, Disable, Recover

The simpler tracking devices rely on you becoming aware of when your car has been stolen and the onus is on you to report it before the tracking device will start to do its job. By that time the car could be some way away, or sufficient time may have passed for the thieves to have found and disabled the tracker. More sophisticated units sense when the vehicle is being tampered with and automatically start the tracking device.

Some devices include 'remote engine kill'. This switches off the engine when the revs or speed drops below a certain point, safely bringing the car to a halt at traffic lights or a junction. The thief is prevented from re-starting the engine.

The effectiveness of stolen vehicle tracking/location systems has a bearing on the response you can expect from the police. The Association of Chief Police Officers' policy on responding to security systems states that, where vehicle-tracking devices comply with ACPO's policy, a Unique Reference Number (URN) can be allocated to the System Operating Centre (SOC) that monitors vehicle movements based on the data supplied by the tracking device. On receiving a crime number, the SOC will report the unauthorised taking of a vehicle directly into police control rooms, and provide realtime information on its location. With security systems equipped to safely disable the vehicle (remote engine kill), the SOC can, if requested, immobilise the vehicle.

ACPO's policy document makes clear the criteria owners should check for when having a tracking system fitted. It states that the SOC must operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and provide full backup monitoring systems. Tracking systems operating from a SOC must provide an accurate realtime vehicle location to within 100m, with details to street name and major physical feature level. The SOC should comply with BS 5979 (CAT II) Code of Practice for Remote centres receiving signals from security systems, and show they meet EN ISO 9001 on quality assurance. ACPO makes it clear that given accurate and reliable stolen vehicle location data, police forces will act on it.

There are several check points for consumers to ask their installation company.
1] The installation should comply with the requirements contained in Directive 95/54/EC relating to EMC (that is radiated signals that could interfer with the operation of the vehicle).
2] The tracking system equipment supplier must be certified ISO 9002 or equivalent.
3] Systems which use radio transmissions need to be licensed.
4] Given sufficient time and resources, a criminal is likely to be able to override or disengage any device, and so systems can only be judged on the level of protection that can be realistically provided. They should be constructed and installed so that any attack is resisted for a minimum of 2 minutes to enable the system to register the attack, transmit data and location and enable the SOC to initiate a response.
5] The equipment should not emit any external audible signal. It is a tracking device, not an alarm. Indeed, it is at times beneficial and safer to allow the car to be taken rather than alert the thief to the presence of a tracking device.
6] The police will not generally be seen to endorse particular products, but manufacturers and operators are able to publish, as a marketing aid, expressions which identify a form of police accreditation for their products or service. Companies are licensed to do so through a dedicated arm of ACPO on payment of an annual licence fee and proof that the tracking product meets required specifications. This process permits the company to use the police "Secured by Design" logo with the endorsement "Police Preferred Specification". Clearly this is something to look for when choosing a system and provider.

The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (known as Thatcham) independently tests vehicle security systems. Tracking and vehicle location systems, along with fleet management systems (collectively termed "In Vehicle Telemetry Systems") which meet the highest specification are granted Thatcham Cat 5 status, which will attract a claimed "Level 1 Police response". A system with full Cat 5 status is not, however, necessarily required to offer sufficient cover, depending on your circumstances. As a minimum for stolen vehicle tracking, Thatcham states that systems should provide the following as mandatory requirements. Systems that meet these requirements qualify for Thatcham TQA accreditation, a step down from full Cat 5:
1] Battery Back-up
2] Bi Directional communication
3] Street level mapping
4] Positional data storage
5] Illegal Motion Detection ('Ignition off' theft alert) and optionally the following desireable features:
---a] A police or licenced security agreement
---b] Driver Identification ('Ignition on' theft alert)
---c] An approved Secure Operating Centre

Along with the ACPO guidelines, this provides a good set of check points for consumers.

ACPO negotiates on behalf of the police service with companies operating stolen vehicle tracking and location systems in order to achieve common procedures with UK police forces. They also contribute to the work of any technical standards organisations, such as Thatcham. It is crucial that the police, faced with the barrage of requests for assistance each day, have confidence in allocating a priority response when they see that a vehicle is fitted with a tracking device that meets ACPO policy requirements.

The conclusion is therefore very clear; if you have a high performance or high value vehicle, an ACPO/Thatcham endorsed tracking device is highly recommended.