Hotwiring is something we often see done in movies when someone wants to drive away a car they don’t own. In police movies, quick getaways and car chases often showcase this method of obtaining or stealing a vehicle. But can you hotwire a new car these days?
Cars that pre-date the mid-nineties can be hotwired quite easily. New cars cannot be hotwired because they are usually protected by some form of a computer system where the original key must be present in the vehicle. Although this makes it difficult to hotwire, a new car can be hacked and started.
Table of Contents
- What is Hotwiring?
- Why Can’t New Cars Be Hotwired?
- Hotwiring: A Closer Look at How and Why It’s Done
- How To Hotwire A Car
- Traditional Methods of Hotwiring are Dead But Can Modern Cars Still Be Stolen?
- Three Ways Car Can Be Stolen Including Hotwiring
- Did the End of Hotwiring Lead to Fewer Car Thefts?
What is Hotwiring?
According to the MacMillan Dictionary, the following is a definition of hotwiring:
“to start the engine of a car by connecting wires rather than by using a key, usually in order to steal the car”
Hotwiring was first used in the 1970s, at the beginning of the modern automobile age.
Hotwiring is the process of starting a car without the ignition key and normally involves firing up the ignition by connecting wires together often found under the dashboard.
Hotwiring was mostly done by people who were desperate for quick cash and wanted to quickly steal a car. It also enabled people to joyride cars that they didn’t own. All they had to do was to learn how to hotwire a car and they could, in the early days, take it in a matter of minutes. This is no longer possible with later model cars that are started with computerized systems or use immobilizers. Basically, these new cars cannot be started without the key.
The term “hotwiring” comes from the act itself which involves bypassing ignition systems and pulling out wires to make engines start without requiring their keys. The term was first introduced in the 1970s, soon after mass-produced automobiles became widely available for purchase.
Hotwiring has long been portrayed in movies when someone either steals a car or needs to escape in an emergency. It is a staple of a certain kind of movie genre. The reality of hotwiring is very different and it is not as easy as shown in the movies. It usually takes an expert at least 60 seconds to hotwire a car and it is more complicated than just twisting two wires together, it requires tools.
The act of hotwiring was also quite risky, whereas modern cars which cannot be hotwired in the traditional sense, can be stolen by simply stealing the keys to the car.
Why Can’t New Cars Be Hotwired?
Let’s make it clear that modern cars can be hacked and started but cannot be hotwired. the reason is that modern cars manufactured in the last 15 years or so had changes made to them in order to try and stop hotwiring.
Cars after the mid-nineties began to be fitted with different devices to deter thieves from stealing the car and to prevent hotwiring that was a common problem in pre-mid 1990 models. Many cars had an immobilizer that would prevent anyone from starting a car unless they had the key for the vehicle. All cars manufactured since October 1998 had an immobilizer.
Basically, the immobilizer was a chip installed in the engine which required a code sent from the key or key fob of the car. Without this code, the car would not start. This prevented manual hotwiring. Unfortunately, like everything else this security system has been cracked by professional thieves and is not foolproof.
Technically, stealing a modern car by either exchanging the immobilizer chip or by using a device to crack the code or mimic the key fob signal, is not “hotwiring” but is hacking the computerized security system of the car. As hotwiring, in the definition given earlier, requires mechanical means such as connecting wires, modern cars CANNOT be hotwired.
There are ways that a driver can use added protection methods to stop a new car from being hacked and we will briefly discuss this shortly. But first, let’s consider how and why hotwiring is used.
Hotwiring: A Closer Look at How and Why It’s Done
Hotwiring is a simple but very efficient way for car thieves to steal your car. This article discusses what hotwiring means, how it’s done, and why thieves use this method.
Hotwiring is a process in which a thief removes the distributor cap from the vehicle to prevent it from starting up. They then put an alligator clip connector on two wires, usually red and black or red and white, which are located under or near your dashboard. When they start up the car with these wires connected to their own battery, they are able to start your vehicle with their own power source instead of yours.
It’s not only to steal a car that hotwiring is used. An owner who has lost his ignition key can use this method to start his vehicle. As we see on TV as well, in the case where someone has an emergency and needs a vehicle, and providing they can get inside the vehicle, and that the vehicle is an older one that can be hotwired, this could theoretically be useful. This would still involve stealing the vehicle of course.
How To Hotwire A Car
According to the SmartMotorist.com, there are 3 different ways to hotwire a car. These are:
- Finding the ignition and battery power wires and connecting them to start the car
- drilling out the ignition key lock on the steering wheel and using a screwdriver to start the car
- Get power to the dashboard and start the car
For more information on exactly how to hotwire your car by using any of the above techniques check this page. Hopefully, you’re using these techniques to start your own car for legitimate reasons!
It is generally much more complicated to hotwire a car than shown in the movies and unless you know the model of the car really well, you will have to locate the correct wires, on older cars they are easier to access also.
New cars are much harder if not impossible to hotwire in the traditional sense because they use keyless systems where a fob needs to be close to the car but is not used to unlock it physically. The key is an electronic one and it opens and allows the car to be started by sending a signal to the car.
Traditional Methods of Hotwiring are Dead But Can Modern Cars Still Be Stolen?
Hotwiring of a car was a physical process often involving touching wires together or forcing a lock to turn in the steering column. Modern cars have no such mechanical system and so cannot be hardwired in this way. This process is now completely absolute for new cars.
We’ve already hinted that new cars can be hacked but let’s take a closer look now at how this can be done and how difficult this is. According to CarBuyingandSelling.com, thieves can easily break into a new car and steal it despite the new “safer” technology.
It used to be the case that with brute force and a couple of minutes’ effort, a thief could hotwire a car and steal it. New technology would appear to have improved the security of vehicles, but this is sadly not true. It can take just 10 seconds to hack into and open a car and get it started!
Why is this the case? Well, like any computer system, there are security issues, and a knowledgeable and skillful thief can exploit these in a matter of seconds with the right tools and know-how.
So how is this done? All a thief has to do is the following:
- Get near to your car’s key
- Use a clever electronic device to detect the signal from your key
- Send this signal to the car to open and start it
- Drive away!
As you can see, unlike with old cars, new cars can be stolen quickly and without any physical effort or damage to the vehicle. Thieves love new vehicles!
The AA found that in 2019 in the UK an average of 300 cars per day was stolen and this shows that it is still possible to easily steal new cars with supposedly secure systems. New technology has not stopped car theft as it was intended to, some reports suggest that car theft has risen by as much as 50% over the past five years to 2020.
Three Ways Car Can Be Stolen Including Hotwiring
On older vehicles, with an ignition key, it is possible to hotwire the car. In the movies, characters are seen doing this by easily removing some plastic paneling from underneath the dashboard and then grabbing two wires and twisting them together so the engine starts.
The reality is that this might be possible (making sure the correct wires are touched together (this can vary according to model), but to then drive the vehicle the steering lock must also be broken, so you can immediately see the fallacy of this.
How can hotwiring be prevented in old cars? Well, one solution is given in this helpful video. The solution is to install and hide a kill switch which will manually turn off the power to the ignition meaning the thief cannot start the car by normal hotwiring.
Hotwiring cannot, as we have already explained, be carried out on newer models of cars (since the mid-nineties). So can these cars be stolen and if so how?
Well, cars that needed a key to be placed in the ignition that had a certain immobilizing method such as a signal or similar it is necessary for the thief to get a spare key that would fit the model of the vehicle then program the key. This is far from easy and is not hotwiring in any sense. These cars are usually too much trouble to be stolen.
Newer models of cars that do not need the key to be placed in the ignition are the next kind of car we will consider. These keys emit a radio signal that sends a signal to the computer system of the car. If it matches, the car can be opened, started, and riven away.
The radio signal is always on so thieves can get close to the key and relay this signal with an electronic device towards the car and another thief will then steal the car. If you want to see how easily this can be done watch this.
The best solution here to prevent car theft is to place your key in a hidden place in your house or shield it with metal to prevent the signal from escaping out of your house where the thief can access it. As you can see in the video I linked to above someone could clone the signal from your key very easily and be driving your car away in moments.
Did the End of Hotwiring Lead to Fewer Car Thefts?
Old cars are not only easy to hotwire for the expert thief, but they are also easy to break into. Newer cars cannot be hotwired but they can still be stolen. Many claim that newer cars are even easier to steal because there is no need to physically break anything in the car or locate parts that can be exploited and used to start the vehicle.
- In Canada, for example, car theft plummeted by two-thirds between 2003 and 2013.
- In the US, between 1991 and 2016, car theft dropped by just over a half.
- The National Insurance Crime Bureau has claimed that the drop in car theft is due to improvement in technology of car ant-theft systems but also because of other factors such as improved law enforcement.
Looking at the evidence it does seem as though the demise of hotwiring, common in old cars before the 1990s, has reduced car theft overall. Despite these impressive statistics, the number of cars stolen continues to be too high and still needs to be reduced further.
It remains to be seen what advances will be introduced in the future and whether the technology exists to stop car theft forever. I rather think not.
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