2010 Jeep Wrangler
Texas police say car thieves are now using laptops to hack into electronic ignition systems in order to pair new car keys to automobilesFiat Chrysler Automobiles

US police and car insurers say that thieves have found a new high-tech way to steal automobiles that involves using laptop computers to hijack the electronic ignition system in order to steal late-model cars.

Recently, a 2010 Jeep Wrangler was stolen from its owner's driveway in Houston, Texas. A CCTV camera captured footage of a man walking over to the vehicle and popping the hood, and then 10 minutes later, a second man appeared, jimmied open a car door, and then entered the Jeep and began working on a laptop.

Houston police believe that the first man was cutting the automobile's alarm so that the car door could be forced open, and then the second man managed to hijack the car's systems using a laptop to start the vehicle, which then allowed him to drive away with it. It is also highly likely that the same method could have been used to steal four other late-model Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees in the same city.

"If you are going to hot-wire a car, you don't bring along a laptop," Senior Officer James Woods, who has spent 23 years in the Houston Police Department's auto anti-theft unit told the Wall Street Journal. "We don't know what he is exactly doing with the laptop, but my guess is he is tapping into the car's computer and marrying it with a key he may already have with him so he can start the car."

The police's theory about how the thieves are getting into the cars is echoed by Fiat Chrysler, which said that it believes the thieves in Texas were "using dealer tools to marry another key fob to the car".

It is interesting that thieves are combining traditional methods of car burglary with laptops to help them steal automobiles, while still having to resort to some analogue methods like cutting the car alarm and jimmying the door, but it is already commonly known that electronic ignition systems are problematic.

Electronic ignition systems are still causing problems

In fact, owners of cars with keyless entry systems all over the world have already been reporting such incidents to the authorities for years, and yet the same car fob systems are still being used by car manufacturers.

In March, German vehicle security researchers ADAC released a study showing that they were able to hack into 24 different cars from 19 unique manufacturers using a radio amplification attack that can quietly extend the range of a user's wireless key fob from within their home in order to remotely unlock the car and start the ignition so that the thief can drive the vehicle off immediately.

Of course, this attack is slightly different from the crime captured on CCTV in Texas, but it shows that the automobile industry really needs to rethink how cars are secured.

Latest statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an insurance industry body tracking car thefts in the US, show that the top five most stolen late-model automobiles between 2010 and 2015 are the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Impala and Chevrolet Malibu.

Fiat Chrysler hasn't been having the easiest of years. In April, following an investigation by the US government, the manufacturer had to recall 1.1 million Jeep Grand Cherokee, Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 vehicles over a confusing gear shift lever that makes the driver think that the car is in "park mode", when actually it isn't and may roll away.

But in June, Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin died after his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down the driveway of his Los Angeles home and pinned him against a brick mailbox. His death was a first, as previously the problem had only caused injuries and crashes, and it has prompted a class action lawsuit from drivers over the gear shifters.