The End of Auto Theft

Technology is changing life so rapidly, that it’s hard to keep up with all the changes. In particular, I was not aware that technology had all but eliminated auto theft as the major societal problem that it had long been. Josh Barro, the son of the prominent Harvard economist Robert Barro, reports on this development in a piece from 2014.

Auto theft isn’t much of a problem anymore in New York City. In 1990, the city had 147,000 reported auto thefts, one for every 50 residents; last year, there were just 7,400, or one per 1,100. That’s a 96 percent drop in the rate of car theft.

That’s an amazing change. Those of us of a certain age can remember when auto theft was a big deal. Growing up in Massachusetts, the huge parking lot of a nearby shopping mall was notorious for car thefts. Everybody knew somebody who had a car stolen out of that lot. In 1971, my dad had his 1965 Chevy Impala stolen right out of his driveway. Auto theft was such a problem, that police departments across the country created special ‘task forces’ devoted solely to auto theft. But now, it seems that auto theft has all but disappeared. How did it happen?

The most important factor is a technological advance: engine immobilizer systems, adopted by manufacturers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These make it essentially impossible to start a car without the ignition key, which contains a microchip uniquely programmed by the dealer to match the car.

Due to the inability to start the car without the keys, remaining car thefts are now increasingly confined to carjackings, stolen keys, or not returning rental cars.

I had a look at the FBI crime stats, and the national figures do not match the incredible 96 percent decline reported for New York City. The national decline, however, is still impressive. The rate of auto theft seems to have fallen nationally by about two-thirds from its peak in 1991. In particular, the theft rate started to fall rapidly about a decade ago, presumably due to the increasing prevalence of the ‘engine immobilizer’ technology. In just three years from 2006-2009, auto theft fell by one-third. Technology in some ways makes life better, in other ways, worse. Reducing auto theft is definitely one way that technology has made life better.

Anyway, if thieves really can’t start my car, I’m wondering if there’s any point to even locking it. So long as there are no valuables or a fancy stereo inside, is there any point to locking a car?

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