Test Driving Car Security

car security
Understanding your car security system, and familiarizing yourself with functions like a panic button, can be pretty important. PeopleImages.com / Digital Vision

Car security is a somewhat loose collection of semi-related technologies, some of which—like remote starters—get lumped into the general category despite their somewhat tenuous connections to the concept of security as a whole. Painting with broad strokes, car security can be broken into technologies that perform one or more of these basic functions: theft deterrence, theft prevention, and stolen vehicle recovery. Systems that perform each of these functions are available from both the aftermarket and as original equipment, although far more car security systems are installed after the fact than come installed from the factory.

When test driving car security technology, the most important thing to remember is that a car doesn’t necessarily have a security system just because it has a key fob. Matters are far more complicated than that, which is why it’s so vital to verify which specific systems the vehicle you’re looking at comes equipped with, and which systems you’ll have to add later on.

Identifying Car Security System Components

When you hear someone talk about car security, you probably think about your neighbor’s car alarm going off in the middle of the night because a cat looked at it funny. And while it’s true that alarms are the most visible—or audible, if you want to be technical about it—component of any car security system, they are only one of many different interrelated technologies. When we talk about car security, these and other technologies are typically included under the umbrella:

  • Car alarms
    • Sound an audible alarm if a vehicle is tampered with. May also be tied into an immobilizer or other systems.
  • Remote door locks
  • Remote starters
    • Allow you to start your car remotely and idle it with the doors unlocked.
    • Sometimes include a theft-deterrent system that immobilizes the vehicle if it is driven away without the key or key fob inside.
  • Vehicle tracking
    • Used in stolen vehicle recovery to locate a vehicle after it has been stolen.
  • Dash cameras
    • Useful in capturing evidence of theft.
  • Key locators
    • Used to avoid losing your keys.
    • Sometimes built in to security systems.
  • Steering wheel locks
    • Physical lock bars that prevent the steering wheel from turning.
  • Immobilizers
    • Allows a stolen vehicle to be shut down.
    • Activated via telematics or loss of signal from a key fob.

Test Driving OEM Car Security Systems

Although there are a lot of cars that come from the factory with one or more of the above technologies, there aren’t a lot that include what most people see as the defining feature. That is, of course, the car alarm, that most adored warbler of the night. In fact, due to the huge percentage of false alarms, the OEMs have trended away from traditional alarms and toward security systems that include an immobilizer.

When you start checking into the security features of any given vehicle, it may be helpful to keep in mind that each OEM has its own system, such as GM's OnStar, that will include a somewhat different set of security features. Although these systems typically don't include audible alarms, they do incorporate a number of other features that fall into the theft deterrence, prevention, and stolen vehicle recovery categories. Some of these systems include:

  • BMW: Assist
    • Free trial period, yearly charge thereafter
    • Stolen vehicle recovery
    • Telematics door unlock
    • Emergency call function
    • Roadside assistance
  • General Motors: OnStar
    • Free trial period, monthly or yearly charge thereafter
    • Stolen vehicle recovery
    • Remote immobilization
    • Telematics door unlock
    • Emergency call function
  • Mercedes-Benz: TeleAid
    • Free trial, yearly charge thereafter
    • Utilizes system developed by Hughes Telematics
    • Anti-theft alarm notification
    • Stolen vehicle recovery
    • Telematics door unlock/lock
    • Emergency call feature
  • Toyota: Safety Connect
    • Free trial for certain models, yearly charge thereafter
    • Stolen vehicle locator
    • Emergency call function
    • Roadside assistance

Test Driving Aftermarket Security Systems

Aftermarket car security systems require differing approaches depending on whether you are having one installed yourself or buying a used vehicle that already has one. The issue is that aftermarket car alarms in particular, and security systems in general, can create tremendous headaches down the road if they aren’t installed properly or if the documentation is lost. So if you’re looking at a used car, and you can tell that it has a security system installed, you may want to ask if the seller has any relevant paperwork.

If the seller can provide you with a professional work order from the install and documentation like an owner’s manual and wiring diagrams, then you probably won’t have any problems. However, you may want to check out all of the features—like the remote starter or automatic door locks—to make sure everything is in good working order, and ask the seller to arm and disarm the system so that you can be absolutely sure that it works.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to put together your own aftermarket car security system, you have a tremendous number of options to consider. Most aftermarket car alarms offer a basic “noisy” alarm with a key fob to arm and disarm it, although you may want to consider one that includes an immobilizer in addition to, or even instead of, the traditional siren. Some security kits also include features like remote door locks and starters, while others allow you to add those and other features at a later date through a modular build system.