A resource for consumers, locksmiths, and security professionals.
Posted On by Ralph Goodman
There is a lot of buzz around Tesla Motors. However, the company does not advertise. They rely strictly on word of mouth through the interest they garner from social media, public events, and founder Elon Musk’s public appearances. Essentially, they get their advertising for free. For a company with so little focus on advertising, their brand is unbelievably strong. This is mainly due to the quality products that they produce.
There is some much work and thought put into every decision about their vehicles, so there is always something to say about the design or performance of their cars. That is mainly the reason people can’t stop talking about them. It may be a matter of opinion on whether their cars are the “best”, but when it comes to security, the result is a very objective and definitive declaration that they manufacture the most secure car ever made.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) there have been 26 Teslas reported stolen between 2008 and 2015. The first Tesla was stolen in 2011, and three more were taken in 2013. Since then, criminals have risen to the challenge of stealing cars that once had a theft rate of 0.15 thefts per 1,000 vehicles. When I reached out to the NICB for the latest theft stats I was told that, In 2015 there were nine Teslas reported stolen: six from California, and one each from Washington, New York and Minnesota. In 2014 there were 13 Teslas reported stolen: eight from California, two from Tennessee, and one each from Arizona, Maryland and New Jersey. (NICB)
It is true that there are very few Teslas on the road when compared to other types of cars, so let us put this into context. There were approximately 90,000 Tesla S’s on the road in 2015 and around 2,500 Tesla Roadsters made. That is still only a theft rate 0.28 per 1,000 vehicles. Compare that to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated rate of vehicle theft for the average car made from 1990 to the present year is approximately, which is 3.6. A Tesla is then almost 13 time less likely to be stolen than an average car. That is quite a difference. It is just not likely, statistically speaking, for a Tesla to be stolen from the owner.
The Tesla Model S has even been given the distinction of ‘Least Stolen Car in the U.S.’ by certain publications. It just gives some validity to the effectiveness of all of the precautions and security. There is certainly no way to claim the exact cause of this. Tesla owners may be more attentive with their keys or where they park. They may even live in areas that have less crime to begin with. But if you were to buy a Tesla, chances are you would share similar character and lifestyle traits as other owners. That is to say, if the reason for the anti-theft effectiveness is not on this list, the car is still not being stolen for some reason. So when you buy a Tesla, you are purchasing a car that has a minuscule chance of being stolen.
One of the best parts of the Tesla is the key fob. A lot of work was put into the device so that it could have the appearance of the Model S, and even open locks based on where the fob was touched. Touching the trunk on the fob would open the trunk, touching the front trunk (the hood) would open the front, windows can be rolled down all at once by pressing to top of the fob, etc. Above all, it works on a proximity sensor that will not only have your door open but start the car when the brake is depressed. The main threat to this would be that being too close to your Tesla may allow your car to be opened by an unauthorized user. Tesla has thought about this, as they think about most things, and the distance of the fob from the door that will open the door is under 2 feet. To put that in perspective, it is roughly an arm’s length away.
That means that you will be able to put your hand on the door in cases where someone tries to slip into your ride. There is just no realistic way for a person to undermine their car’s security simply by standing around the car. One of the few Model S’s that have been stolen had left a key in the car, but any car with the keys inside is going to be a target for criminals. You can chalk that one up to operator error. In terms of proximity issues, a car that has the motor started with the key outside the vehicle can drive away without the key inside. Once the driver gets up out of the seat, the key will need to be present to restart the car, but you can theoretically drive without the key. This seems like more of a safety feature that would allow an operator to continue driving even if his or her keys have been thrown out the window by a disgruntled passenger. (It does happen). Again, the key would need to be less than 2 feet from the door, so having the car stolen like this is not a real threat to its security.
Every Tesla has GPS tracking that can be remotely accessed by the owner, as well as by Tesla itself. That means that people will always know where a Tesla is. This feature can be turned off, by entering the car and turning off the remote access feature. I am not sure why you would want to do this, but you can. Unfortunately, there are ways for a thief to turn off the remote access feature, and this will blind you to the specific information about the car. It will not stop Tesla from being able to track the car. They will retain that type of access no matter what, and have the authority to use it in the instances of vehicle theft.
In the instance that the thief was not knowledgeable about the car, which is likely the reason they thought they could steal it, you will be able to check several metrics. The obvious insight that the tracking will give you is location and direction it is traveling. However, you will also be given a real-time update of the car’s speed, the throttle position, and even the remaining charge. If anything is open in terms of windows or the charge port, this will also be shown on the app. When a Tesla owner can track what is happening with almost every aspect of the car at any given time, it makes getting away with stealing the car, very difficult.
An amazing feature that Tesla installs standard with every car is the Remote Disabling System. Tesla headquarters can access any car at any time. This may make you a little scared, especially if you believe the unprofessionalism that employees display with this power. More than focusing on what this means for your privacy, it says a lot to criminals. What good is a car that can be turned off while it is being stolen? In fact, for added safety, the car can be moved into a low power mode. This will decrease the speed of the vehicle and limit the speed it can regain. Finally, the car can just be turned off once it is at a safe speed and location.
Criminals know that there is no way to get around this. There may be ways to turn off the control that an owner has, by turning off remote access once the criminal is in the vehicle. However, many professional automotive experts that conduct experiments with Tesla cars come to find that there is nothing they can do to stop a grumpy Tesla headquarters from disabling their car. Tesla knows when the car is being messed with, and even owners will be prompted with warnings if they begin to interact with the car in a way that might void the warranty. With a car that is so closely watched and easily controlled, it is no wonder why thieves want nothing to do with them.
One of the most important parts of security is not just theft safety, but how well it protects the people who use it. In the case of car security, there is no better metric than crash safety. Whether the accident is your fault, or the blame lies with another, your car should be secure enough to save your life. This is another area where Tesla succeeds dramatically. Tesla Motors even boasts that the Model S has the best safety rating of any car ever tested. You can read all about it, but it basically states that the Model S completed the crash tests with a score of 5.4 stars due to its receiving 5 stars in every single category of tests. However, because there is no score higher than 5 stars, the score was then rounded down. The car has “set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants” (Tesla Motors). In fact, not only did it protect the simulated occupants, it broke the crash test equipment.
But those are just lab results. So how do we know if the car is safe in the real world? Well, as a sports car with a “Ludicrous” mode that enables the car to go from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds, there are some pretty crazy crashes that happen. In West Hollywood, a thief crashed a Model S into a light post at an immense speed, splitting the car in two. The driver of the Tesla escaped with minor injuries. When a Tesla rear-ended a Toyota Corolla in Palmdale CA, the fallout of the crash split the Corolla in half, killing the Toyota’s driver and two young passengers. In this case, the Tesla driver also escaped with minor injuries. These anecdotes are all well in good, but they represent a larger story of over 344 million miles driven in Teslas collectively, and no permanent injuries or deaths as a result of any crash. It does not get much more secure than that.
Is Tesla Security perfect? No. But there is no such thing as perfect security, there is always room for assessment and improvement (something which many homeowners can attest to). What you have with this particular company is as good as security gets. They are extremely secure and have a mission to improve. That desire to improve will keep them on the forefront of safety. The biggest security breach for the car company was a hack that allowed the perpetrator to open windows, doors, change the suspension and cut power to the car. They would also be able to change the information that was displayed on the car’s screen. This was not much of a danger, especially, because this attack relied on getting into the vehicle. The security patch also came out and was installed in every vulnerable car within 2 weeks.
However, this quick response was not enough for the company. They are actively seeking to hire both security engineers for software and information security analysts. If you do have a Tesla hack, and you don’t want to work for them, you can still collect the reward for finding security vulnerabilities. This reward is now $10,000 for any reports of command injection, vertical privilege escalation vulnerabilities, and SQL injection. Surely you would think that this offer is something only advertised to certain people, but you would be wrong. Tesla has even made these announcements at the hacker and security convention DEF CON and gone there to seek talented individuals for their own internal hacking team. They want to undermine their own security, just to improve it. Finding their own flaws just as a way of improving their own security. It is hard to imagine more dedication to security improvements than that.
For most people, this type of car is out of their grasp. It is simply too expensive for the general public to afford. Even with the Model 3’s significant price decrease, a $35,000 car is still going to be too much for most people to spend. Unfortunately, that is just the nature of security. You get what you pay for. The best costs a pretty penny more than the alternatives. What you can look forward to is the potential for further price decreases in used vehicles and the lower cost of future models. If waiting for those things does not pay off, you can always make your own Tesla with the open patents that they released. However you end up getting your Tesla, it is fair to say it will not be by stealing it.