My white 2003 Honda Civic hybrid is a marvelous machine: it converts regular gasoline, battery-stored electricity and environmental sanctimony into forward motion at a tenacious 45 miles to the gallon. My wife and I affectionately named it Honky.
But last Christmas, three months after we bought Honky from a downtown San Francisco Honda dealership, our brand-new car was transporting us at a disappointing zero miles to the gallon. It had mysteriously disappeared from the street in front of our house while we were on vacation.
Was it actually stolen? Initially, I doubted it. Cars are typically stolen and scavenged for replacement parts, and there is no wide market for the unique components of hybrid vehicles. The car's standard Civic parts may have been attractive, but there are plenty of other Hondas to nick in our neighborhood. Were we to believe that a thief stole our car to brag to his friends about getting 40-plus miles to the gallon and preserving city air? Odder still, how could they have bypassed the security chip in the thick black jacket of our car key, designed so that our keys, and only our keys, could send the unique code needed to activate the car's ignition? We still had all our keys in our possession. The humorless cop at the city's stolen-car department theorized that the thieves had simply lifted it into the back of a truck and hauled it away.
The story gets stranger from there. We filed a stolen-car report and waited. Nothing happened. We began to lose hope and talk about the need for closure. Two weeks later, on a whim, I called the city's Department of Parking and Traffic and entered our license plate number into the automated phone system. Eureka. The car had gotten a parking ticket near the ocean, five miles away. My wife and I went to investigate. Honky was sitting unharmed on a Richmond district side street. There was no sign of a break-in and no sign anyone had tampered with the ignition cylinder. But the gas tank was empty and there were cigarette butts and other debris scattered around the car. Someone had indeed lifted it, though they hadn't taken any of our stuff. In a stinging referendum on my wife's red leather jacket, the thieves left it sitting untouched in the back seat.
Armchair detectives might also find this detail interesting: our manual was gone and the manual, insurance info and registration of an Acura owner was in our car. I later called the Acura owner and he was astounded. His car was sitting in front of his house. When he went to check it, he found his glove compartment empty. He came over to collect his stuff and seemed like a respectable, middle-aged family man--not like the thieves who programmed dance music stations into our radio and left a Pantera CD in the car. We spoke for awhile and couldn't find any service stations or dealerships that we both used.
I was happy to recover my car, but found myself confronting a 21st-century quandary: how was our unstealable car so easily stolen? How is an undriveable car (without the right keys) taken on what appears to be a joy ride? Had Honda's much ballyhooed transponder technology been hacked?
Automobile manufacturers have been using some kind of antitheft technology in keys since 1986 when General Motors introduced its original Pass Key system for Chevrolet Corvettes. The system worked using a small resistor chip embedded in the key with one of 15 different code combinations. When the key was pushed into the ignition, a controller module would read the resistance on the chip and, if it held the correct value, would start the car. There were lots of problems with the technology. The contact in the cylinder would erode and then even the right key couldn't start the car. And thieves could easily guess among only 15 different possibilities.
Fifteen years later, the technology has improved markedly. Small passive transponder chips are now embedded into the majority of new-car keys. They have no batteries, but when inserted into the ignition cylinder, enter an electromagnetic field and awake, sending out a unique code. The newest systems, including my hybrid's, employ something called a rolling code. The code is one of 4 billion variations and changes every time we start the car, making it almost impossible to hack it with a black box that cycles through the possibilities.
The new technology has had a demonstrable effect on car thefts. The Highway Loss Data Institute reports that factory-installed immobilizing antitheft devices reduce the stolen car rate by 50 percent. "It doesn't go to zero, because you still have the ever-popular method of rolling cars onto a flat-bed truck," says institute president Brian O'Neil.
But our car had indeed been stolen and driven, bucking the trend. After we recovered the car, I called a batch of auto security experts plus Honda's own researchers, who all concluded that Honky had not been hotwired. "There is no way they could have driven it without really extensive damage or replacement of very large components," said Ed Castaldi, a researcher at Honda. That left only one bizarre but unmistakable conclusion: someone had the key. And since we still had our keys, it suggested an inside job at the dealership, or that someone approached a Honda dealership pretending to be me and asking for a replacement key. Security experts say such a ruse is shamefully easy to pull off. Still, that's a lot of work for a joy ride.
Automobile-security expert Chris McGoey told me I was "thinking logically about an illogical situation." Thieves, particularly kids, will do wacky things to get a hold of a car. Most auto-security experts are skeptical about common antitheft tools like The Club (easily dismantled) or LoJack (which helps you recover the car, but doesn't prevent theft.) So to prevent another incident, McGoey suggested the Unbrakeable Auto Lock, which clamps down the brake pedal. Another expert suggested installing a secret "kill switch" somewhere in the car that you have to press to start the car. We might do it. For some reason, the high-tech chip in my key instills very little faith.
If you have a theory on Stone's stolen car, e-mail him at email@example.com