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New "Coplock" anti-theft device could save your car

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Bob Lycoudis was relieved because his antitheft lock had finally been proven.
Bob Lycoudis was relieved because his antitheft lock had finally been proven.

It was a scene straight from Gone in 60 Seconds or Grand Theft Auto, except it wasn't Hollywood. It was an industrial estate in Dandenong.

A group of hardened car thieves huddled around a target car, racing against the clock to break in, bypass its security system and drive. Each had done it before, plenty of times. But not this time. Getting into the car was easy. Expert wiggling inside the door frame with a flat metal "slim jim" is one way. A looped piece of plastic tape is another. As for bypassing the ignition, these guys can do that with their eyes closed.

But they couldn't drive away: the brake pedal was locked against the floor with a device that wouldn't move no matter what those bad boys used. Hammers, screwdrivers and bolt cutters couldn't budge it.

An oxyacetylene torch would have but these were car thieves, not safe crackers. They don't carry blowtorches. Defeated, they turned around and gave the thumbs up to a man standing nearby. He looked happy - and relieved.

The "thieves" can't be named. Let's just say they help Handbrake Turn, a group that gets reformed scallywags to talk sense into young offenders who like stealing cars. The relieved onlooker was Bob Lycoudis, a reformed policeman turned inventor. Lycoudis was relieved because his antitheft lock had finally been proven. It had taken four years, seven prototypes and massive work. Until this day, the "takeaway" experts had beaten his work-in-progress every time they'd tested it. But now it was sorted.

In 20 years on the streets and as a police prosecutor, Lycoudis saw plenty of car thieves. But it was being a car owner that motivated him to "make a better mouse trap".

One day in 2002, he parked his Commodore at a Glen Waverley shopping centre, put a conventional steering lock on to the wheel and walked off. He returned just in time to see a shifty figure remove a grille at the front his car. Thieves did that to get under the bonnet to disable the alarm ready to steal the car.

Lycoudis was no engineer but he reckoned he needed something better than the steering lock he had 

It would have taken them less than 20 seconds to cut a piece out of the steering wheel and not much longer to bypass the ignition. In another 60 seconds, his car would have been gone. It got him thinking.

Lycoudis was no engineer but he reckoned he needed something better than the steering lock he had - and the standard electronic safeguards too many thieves knew how to bypass. He bought a cheap steering lock and modified it to make a lockable brace to immobilise the brake (or clutch) pedal. The theory was simple: steering wheels are easy to get at - and to cut or break - but brake and clutch pedals are hard to get at without attracting attention. Besides, the hardened-steel pedals are almost impossible to cut with hand tools.

When Lycoudis eventually got his lock thief-proof, he dubbed it "Coplock", patented it and found a manufacturer. But he didn't get rich and live happily ever after in the Bahamas. Luckily for car owners, but not for inventors, from 2006 to 2009 most car manufacturers stayed ahead of most thieves. New immobilisers, alarms and other electronic safeguards halved the national stolen car figures from a high of more than 100,000 a year.

But since 2010 the pendulum has swung the other way. The technology that at first blocked thieves came back to bite car makers and owners. As cheaper electronic tools hit the market, thieves got the chance to beat factory-fitted safeguards.

Welcome to car hacking. It's on the rise. Last year more than 60,000 cars were stolen in Australia, up 8500 on the previous year. And in Victoria the rising rate of thefts outstrips the national average.

One reason for the trend is that modern vehicles are so wonderfully computerised. This might stop most of us from servicing our own cars the way our forebears did, but it doesn't stop thieves. Service technicians - mechanics, but with cleaner overalls - routinely use electronic diagnostic tools to unlock, start and test run clients' cars. The trouble is, digitally savvy degenerates use the same gear.

Almost anything a thief needs can be bought online because most of it is legitimate equipment in the hands of mechanics, panel beaters and the like.

There's a wickedly cheap gizmo that gets thieves into cars and another that allows them simply to program the car's computer to accept another key. They can even plug a device into the cigarette lighter to stop the GPS tracker from transmitting its whereabouts to owners and police. And for $150, dodgy online sites supply "code grabbers" that record remote codes and play them back to unlock doors.

There's even talk of an app that will let smart phones unlock cars. Isn't progress wonderful? Thanks for nothing, Silicon Valley.

It's enough to make people sentimental about good ol' padlocks and chains, which is why a brutally simple fix like a brake lock might not be so silly. Traditionalists will be reassured to know that the most stolen car in Australia is still the Holden Commodore, beloved by generations of thieves.

In fact, the Top 10 most stolen list is dominated by five different Commodore models, with the old VT model at No 1. Running second is the late model Toyota Hi-Lux, with the older HiLux model at No 9.

What the top 10 doesn't show is the rising number of prestige and performance cars that thieves are grabbing, either to "chop" for parts or to smuggle overseas for sale. About a quarter of all cars stolen in Australia are never recovered, meaning most of those have been taken by professional car thieves who steal to order as part of organised rackets.

Robbers, too, often like the best when it comes to getaway cars. A few years ago the Subaru WRX was the getaway of choice for ram raiders and the like, but European makes such as BMW and Audi are fighting back. They look respectable enough not to attract attention but take some catching when the pedal's to the metal. Audi's novel idea of putting a "valet key" in the glove box is a walk-up start for the villains. 

A snake catcher of our acquaintance has his own offbeat security plan. He leaves his car unlocked, relying on signs front and back warning of live snakes in the vehicle.

He got the idea after some joy-riders pinched his car one day. They apparently lost interest after opening his "toolbox" and finding a couple of unhappy tiger snakes. Our man found his car in the middle of the street nearby, motor going and doors wide open. Snakes work well, but they're not for everyone.

Andrew Rule
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