The science of stolen vehicle recovery

by James Menzies

CALGARY, Alta. – New technology is changing the way the trucking industry combats heavy-duty truck and cargo theft. And some of the most cutting edge of that technology is being developed right here in Canada.

You may not have heard of CSI Wireless, but if your fleet runs some of the most popular truck tracking and vehicle recovery systems on the market, then there’s a good chance you’re using its hardware. If you’re a customer of the likes of PeopleNet, AirIQ or Terion, then you’ve probably got a CSI Wireless chip on-board your truck, whether you know it or not. CSI is the Canadian company that provides the proprietary hardware to these and other companies, to help in the tracking and recovery of stolen trucks and trailers.

Fleets and O/Os simply can’t afford to be at the mercy of the local police department when a truck or trailer goes missing anymore. Criminals have gotten savvier over the years and police agencies have become overwhelmed as the number of vehicle and cargo thefts escalates.

To this end, Boomerang Tracking, of Montreal, pioneered a system that involved dispatching a fleet of chase vehicles to hunt down a stolen truck or trailer. While somewhat effective, it is a hit-and-miss approach to vehicle recovery that may eventually become obsolete in light of new technology.

“Those approaches are very labor-intensive and as the stolen vehicle population increases it becomes almost impossible for the police to be able to go out and do this,” says Chris Carver, CSI Wireless’s vice-president of marketing.

The trucking industry desperately needed a quicker response mechanism, and CSI has been developing one at its Calgary headquarters. Asset-Link is the company’s latest tool in combating truck and cargo theft. It’s a small unit that is mounted inside the truck or trailer where it sits dormant most of time, waking up periodically to verify its location. If, during one of these periodic location checks, the truck or trailer has moved outside a specified geo-fence, then the unit transmits what is referred to as an exception report.

The call center monitoring the vehicle then investigates the report, and if it’s determined to be stolen, the Asset-Link unit is paged and instructed to go into continuous tracking mode.

Authorities can then be informed of the truck or trailer’s exact location, its speed and direction, making the culprit easy pickings for the police. If that’s not enough, the device can even be instructed to shut down the fuel supply and de-activate the starter to literally stop the thief in his tracks.

“(Asset-Link) offers tremendous efficiency in terms of load recovery or a vehicle intercept,” says Carver. “It has significantly reduced recovery times.”

The idea of tracking stolen vehicles isn’t exactly new. Several years ago cellular technology enabled fleet owners to track their trucks. However cellular service wasn’t up to the same standards as it is today and tracking trucks and trailers wasn’t exactly cost-effective. The earliest systems that were developed had to be turned on at all times, generating a constant flow of location data, whether the vehicle was where it was supposed to be or not.

“At the end of the day you had buckets and buckets of information and all of this information would end up hitting the floor – it was useless,” says Carver. “The end result was a bill at the end of the month for all that air time that was used up. It was basically an insurance bill.”

Perhaps the biggest evolution in the development of stolen vehicle recovery technology, was the ability to store more information on the on-board unit itself, minimizing contact with the network and allowing the unit to remain dormant for the majority if the time.

“What we’re seeing now in the trucking industry is a new generation of devices that have a tremendous amount of smarts in them and they do a lot of the processing right on-board the vehicle,” explains Carver. “The cost to the consumer is actually very low because you only cause these devices to wake up and register on the network and use up air time when there’s actually been an exception.”

Large fleets have taken notice of the developments, and many of them are equipping some, or all, of their trucks with the technology. J.B. Hunt, for example, has about 10,000 CSI-built units installed on its trucks and trailers. Independent owner/operators are also warming up to the idea as the cost continues to decline.

“The big guys have clearly accepted this type of technology as essential to operating in a proper manner,” says Carver. “It’s only a matter of time before the next tier has to do the same thing in order to remain competitive.”

The industry as a whole stands to benefit from the more widespread use of vehicle recovery systems, especially in the form of lower insurance premiums.

Will Mandau, national director of claims for Markel Insurance, says that having a vehicle recovery system on-board helps reduce the number of thefts, which impacts the overall cost of insurance for the trucking industry.

“Although we do not endorse a specific product, we do applaud those companies who do employ devices to track vehicles and to deter theft,” says Mandau. “It results in lower incidents of theft, higher recovery rates and ultimately it results in lower premiums as a result of the lower loss ratios.”

However, simply installing a vehicle tracking device and forgetting about it isn’t enough to deter thieves. Pat Smith, Markel’s corporate claims manager, remembers the case of the trucker who forgot to turn on the tracking device the day his truck was stolen. Oops…

“It’s wonderful to have equipment but you have to monitor it and make sure it’s operating properly,” says Smith.

Another advantage of the newest lines of recovery systems is that they are more discreet than ever. A thief will have a difficult time determining which trucks are equipped with tracking hardware since the units are hidden on-board and the antennas are also covertly located.

But Smith warns that it isn’t always enough to deter truck and cargo thieves.

“Thieves are very sophisticated these days – they’re not just opening up trailers and seeing what you’re carrying,” says Smith. “They’ll study a trucking company and get to know what kind of loads they’re carrying.”

And if that’s not bad enough, it’s not only valuable goods that are targeted. With the advent of the Internet, cargo thieves can quickly sell almost anything at all.

“They’ll steal anything that can be stolen,” warns Smith.


Develop action plan to reduce risk of theft

TORONTO, Ont. – It’s always a good idea to have an action plan in place for the recovery of a stolen truck or trailer, however implementing certain safeguards can minimize your chance of being victimized in the first place.

Pat Smith, corporate claims manager for Markel Insurance, says there are a number of steps fleets can take to reduce the chance of being targeted by thieves. Since organized criminals are responsible for most cargo thefts, they do their homework first, often honing in on carriers that let their guard down.

“In many instances (carriers) are allowing drivers to take loaded trailers to their residence so they can start out first thing in the morning without going back to the yard,” says Smith. Often when that happens a driver doesn’t have room to park it at home, so they’ll leave it in the parking lot of a local truck stop or shopping mall.

“Thieves come along, see a trailer in a deserted area and if they see there’s something on there worth having, they’re going to have it – it’s gone,” says Smith.

Smith recommends keeping trailers in a fenced-in yard that’s locked up when unsupervised. That’s especially important for carriers that are located in rural areas.

“Many of these trucking companies are off the beaten path,” points out Smith. If a trailer is stolen from an unsupervised yard on a Friday night, sometimes the fleet won’t even be aware of the theft until Monday morning. By that time the thieves are long gone – and so is the cargo.

Mandau, Markel’s national director of claims, says carriers should also consider assigning teams to haul valuable merchandise.

“If you’re hauling high-value loads then by sending out a driver by himself, you’re putting yourself at risk,” says Mandau. A driver will most likely have to leave that load unattended at some point in time if running solo. When that happens, an efficient thief can make off with the load in mere minutes. If you do find yourself the victim of a truck or trailer theft, it’s important to act immediately upon discovery of the theft, advises Mandau.

“First and foremost they should be notifying the police immediately, then notifying their insurance company immediately thereafter,” says Mandau. “Markel employs the services of a number of firms that will conduct grid searches to locate the vehicle and it’s imperative that we are notified immediately after the loss is discovered in order to employ those individuals and to search out and attempt the recovery of the vehicle.”

About 85 to 90 per cent of stolen heavy equipment is recovered within a few days of the theft, but it’s important the recovery process isn’t delayed.

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