Tech Insights

Carhackers: The High-Tech World of Modern Car Theft

October 04, 2023 by Zac Amos

Can vehicle security systems keep up with car thieves’ sophisticated hacking ploys? This article takes a look at common car hacks and what manufacturers are doing to stop them.

As car technology improves and systems grow more advanced, modern cars become more complex with every release. 


Thieves are finding high-tech ways to steal cars.

Thieves are finding high-tech ways to steal cars. Image used courtesy of Adobe Stock


While that’s true, criminals are also looking for new ways to break into these systems to steal vehicles. In the U.S. alone, more than 1 million vehicles were stolen in 2022, and car theft costs Americans and insurance companies more than $8 billion annually. It’s a worsening problem, and criminals are devising bolder and more sophisticated carjacking methods.


High-Tech Carjacking Methods

As cars become more advanced, thieves level up their methods. Their intentions remain the same, but their skills have changed. Their tools are now more sophisticated, cracking car codes comprised of zeros and ones. Here are some high-tech carjacking methods thieves use to steal cars.


Network Hacking or CAN injection

Cars have a network used by their built-in systems to communicate with one another. It’s already established these systems can control one another if needed. This network is called a controller area network (CAN) bus.


Hackers sometimes target the controller area network bus in a vehicle.

Hackers sometimes target the controller area network bus in a vehicle. Image used courtesy of ResearchGate (Creative Commons)


It’s designed to be a self-contained network, and car systems use it constantly to operate together. Since it’s a closed network and designed solely for the car’s system’s use, it is vulnerable to attacks from hackers.

Car thieves can hack into this network and access the computer systems controlling the car. This includes the ignition system and every other system using the CAN bus. Thieves can access the CAN bus by connecting to a physical port in the car or via a wireless network. They can access the engine control unit, steal a copy of the wireless key code, and clone it to create a copy of the key fob.


Wireless Key Hack

Modern cars typically have a wireless entry and ignition system. This differs from earlier keyless entry designs where drivers must press a button to enter their vehicles. Modern keyless systems only need to sense the key fob using a proximity sensor, and drivers can open their doors using the handle.

Car thieves devised a method to exploit this system. Newer key fobs constantly transmit a signal to cars. Thieves use devices to copy this signal, replicate it, and quickly replay it to the car. This relay theft method tricks the vehicle into thinking the key fob transmitted the signal and allows thieves to start the car and drive away.


USB Attack

This method is comparable to old-school hot-wiring methods used by car thieves back in the day. However, instead of stripping wires to start the car, they use a USB connector to access the ignition system and drive off.

The USB hack exploits a design flaw in Hyundai and Kia vehicles. Thieves break into cars and look for a slot in the steering wheel column. Then, they insert a USB connector into the slot and start the vehicle. This carjacking method gained notoriety after a group of young thieves in Milwaukee posted their exploits on social media.


What Are Car Manufacturers Doing to Prevent Car Theft?

Kia and Hyundai have addressed security issues by developing theft deterrent software for millions of affected vehicles. The software extends the alarm sound from 30 seconds to one minute, requiring drivers to stick the key in the ignition to start the car.

Ford is leveraging AI in its efforts to improve car security. The car manufacturer partnered with ADT to create an AI-based security system called Canopy that uses a camera and sensors to detect threats. Truck owners can install the camera system in the cargo bed of their vehicles.

The system sets off an alarm when it detects signs and sounds of breaking glass or cutting metal. In addition, Canopy will send notifications to car owners via an app whenever threats are detected. The aftermarket security system is set for release in fall 2023.


Today’s high-tech vehicles are vulnerable to attack in several areas.

Today’s high-tech vehicles are vulnerable to attack in several areas. Image used courtesy of NREL (Illustration by Joelynn Schroeder)


Modern Car Security Features Deter Car Thieves

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) said fewer electric vehicles are stolen than other vehicles. The top two vehicles on the list are Dodge muscle cars—the Charger SRT Hellcat and Charger HEMI. The HLDI advised Hellcat and HEMI owners to be extra careful as the two car models have been among the most stolen vehicles since 2011.

Hybrid cars have also become prime targets for car thieves in recent years. The theft rate of the 2004-2009 Toyota Prius models was more than 40 times higher in 2020 than in 2016. The massive uptick is associated with the theft of catalytic converters fitted in the specific model. Higher amounts of precious metals like platinum, rhodium, and palladium are typically found in hybrid cars due to their emissions classification and frequent engine starts.

Electric cars may be more challenging to steal than other vehicles due to their advanced security features. Engineers continue to develop and test new technologies to bring consumers peace of mind whenever they park or charge their vehicles. Here are some modern security features of electric cars that help deter thieves.


Facial Recognition

One of the best security features for mobile devices is now used to protect modern cars. Facial recognition technology allows drivers to enter and start vehicles by peering into one of the car’s external cameras. 

The Genesis GV60 electric SUV offers this high-tech feature, allowing owners to encode four faces into the system. Genesis ensured all user data would be encrypted in each unit, meaning no biometric data would be uploaded and stored in its cloud servers.


Car Immobilizers

Immobilizers are a great addition to car security as they prevent would-be thieves from driving away with stolen cars. It has become a standard in modern vehicles, including electric cars. This security feature uses coded keys that exchange data with the vehicle during ignition. Even if thieves do manage to get inside the car, they won’t be able to start the vehicle without the coded key.


GPS Tracking

GPS trackers are a great way to locate vehicles in real time. While they may not prevent car theft entirely, they can greatly improve the chance of recovery. Some trackers even have vehicle immobilization technology, allowing car owners to disable their vehicles remotely if stolen.


Fingerprint Authentication

Some electric vehicles are also adopting biometric technology in their advanced designs. The Mercedes AMG EQS 53 and Genesis GV60 have fingerprint sensors that allow drivers to access various features. The EQS 53 uses the authorized fingerprint to access driver profiles, while the GV60 allows drivers to start and drive the car.


Smartphone Key Technology

Tesla owners experienced this technology first — it allows users to enter and drive their cars with their smartphones. The car manufacturer used Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology to pair cars and their owners’ smartphones for convenient and secure access.


Security Cameras

Electric vehicles — especially those with partially automated driving systems — use sophisticated cameras for various purposes. Aside from assisting drivers with maneuvering their cars, these cameras also help dissuade car thieves.

Tesla cars have a Sentry Mode that allows owners to monitor their vehicles while they are turned off. Owners can access front and rear cameras remotely using their smartphones in real time. The feature also detects suspicious activity around the vehicle and goes into alarm mode when triggered.


Improving Vehicle Security as a Priority

Criminals will always find new methods to steal vehicles and items left inside them regardless of brand and model. Car manufacturers should continue developing more advanced security features to give car owners the peace of mind they deserve while improving car performance, safety, and convenience.