Sales are booming for lo-jack style devices designed to remotely kill cars when their owners fall behind on payments. These cars are sold to people whose credit has been downchecked to "B," on lots where cars cost more, loan terms are worse, and they contain GPS units that make the car's location continuously available to the dealer, credit-company (and others) so that they can more easily repossess the cars.
Companies such as OnStar are beginning to make use of their remote controls for purposes other than theft prevention: for example, the company promises to throttle the engine of any car that they're told is involved in a police chase.
Presumably these remote-kill devices are no better or worse secured than, say, the tax-records of every British parent (repeatedly lost by the tax authority), or the computer systems of giant credit-reporting bureaus, or the networks of the 100+ embassies and foreign service offices penetrated by the GhostNet espionage ring.
Designing devices that are intended to be remotely disabled, against the owner's wishes, is like designing one of those science-fiction-movie spaceships with the inconveniently placed "self-destruct" button. I always wondered about those: wouldn't starship engineers turn out a better product if they designed it from the ground up never to explode?
And wouldn't these cars be more secure if they were designed never to be remotely controlled against the owner's wishes?
The devices, which are required by a growing number of subprime loan contracts, are the product of a revolution in telematics — the blending of telecommunications and wireless technology.
The devices are usually controlled remotely by the dealer or lender and are linked to the vehicle's powertrain. They usually cut out the power several days after the payment is due. Before the deadline, the driver is treated to a concert of tones and flashing indicators signaling that the deadline is approaching. There are also warnings after the deadline has passed.
Their proponents call the devices a win-win for consumers and finance companies. They make it possible for dealers to sell cars to people who would have a hard time getting a loan otherwise. The buyers end up paying a somewhat lower interest rate because the risk to the lender is less.
The products also include global positioning, or GPS, to speed up the repossession of the vehicle, if necessary.