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Tech of tomorrow and car crime

Advanced technology can help us tackle vehicle crime investigations, writes Dr Ken German.

Vast amounts of money and time have been invested into the tracking, tracing and identification of stolen art treasures so much so that art theft is now approached as not just a police matter but as a multi-agency investigation that allows the police, insurance companies, approved private art investigators, tracing agencies and other likeminded groups to amalgamate and share certain relative information to the benefit of all.

Indeed police investigations into the thefts and burglaries at certain museums, auctions and country houses clearly show some parity particularly with the values of stolen historic and rare classic cars and motorcycles, which have an equivalent worth to the artefacts taken in the more publicised art collection burglaries. What is different is that notwithstanding existing technology that supplies these important tracking devices and automatic number plate readers for the police as aids to recovery of stolen vehicles, it’s often the police alone who have to deal solely with the any tracing, identification, seizure, evidencing and repatriation of these treasured vehicles that may be required.

So it was with interest that I discovered that many universities are now experimenting in ideas related to crime fighting using forensic science methods that include aspects of nanotechnology and research into microchips that can operate nano-manipulators and nano imaging tools for better visualisation in certain complex criminal enquiries.
Experiments in nano-technology have already shown it’s capable of providing improved performance and security such as the collecting of information at a crime scene whilst offering at the same time easier and more effective analysis of evidence, with better effectiveness, accuracy, reliability, time saving and availability at a reduced cost; all of which has helped to alleviate what were major concerns in forensic crime scene investigation.

Nano manipulators and real time nano 3D imaging tools with nano robots fitted with microscopic viewing systems for working with objects on an extremely small scale can also provide variable force and motion controls with sensors that can feed back programmed information on an object under forensic examination. Also successfully trialled is a new liquid fingerprinting nanotechnology that has improved latent fingerprint detection. At present, traditional methods such as powder dusting, cyanoacrylate fuming, chemical and small particle reagent methods, have all been gradually compromised by low contrast, sensitivity, selectivity, and toxicity problems.

Important also are the use of rare earth fluorescent nanomaterials like Quantum Dots (QD) which are normally used in television screens. These are being hailed for their unique optical and chemical properties in electronics, information storage, imaging and sensing. Trials with both QD’s and Photonics for in car ‘next-generation’ displays have also been instrumental in establishing purer colours, a longer life, lower manufacturing costs and lower power consumption when compared to the organic luminescent materials used in organic light emitting diodes.

Experiments to incorporate all these laboratory processes onto one nanoplatform containing tools such as nanoprobes, nanochips and other nanodevices have been found to not only minimise laboratory contamination issues but could be more effective when used in detecting serious crimes including theft fraud and cybercrime. Rare earth magnets like neodymium magnets and samarium–cobalt magnets are also being developed into power sources capable of being used in nano tracking items such as paintings and if current tests are successful, vehicles.

At this time some of these rare-earth magnets have been found to be extremely brittle and vulnerable to corrosion requiring a plated or coated covering to protect them from breaking, chipping, or crumbling into powder. Nevertheless these microscopic devices, many of which are almost undetectable, could one day eliminate the rather heavy and cumbersome present day batteries used to power tracking systems in vehicles which seem to be easily discovered and removed by professional thieves.

While theft of rare classic vehicles in Europe, estimated at 230 and 550 worldwide (those that are reported) does not compare to the volume of art stolen annually, the recovery rate for both is ironically the same, just ten per cent. It’s clear that every little piece of new technology that can help police to keep pace with the criminal tool box must be welcomed and in vehicle crime certain new ideas and futuristic technology already being used in the art world is being tested and applied in certain vehicle crime investigations.

Much of this new science is welcomed for its ability to place the criminal more easily and clinically at the ‘coal face’ of a crime. Harmless and traceable liquid coverings embedded with a code offering highly detailed information that can be invisibly applied to an item already exist and have proved highly successful.

New specialised paints and varnishes have also enthused forensic investigators with the possibility that cars impregnated with these unique integrated unintrusive codes can be readily identifiable in minutes under a certain level of ultraviolet light by those authorities with the wherewithal of how to read them. Also a short while ago Interpol released a free a free ID-Art app allowing any institution or collector to create an inventory of their collections that could be used in the event of theft.

While in the art world this idea allows searches to be made using a photographic image of an item on its database containing 52,000 pieces of stolen artwork, the concept is being trialled on high end classic vehicles with the hope that it would assist due diligence, an area that has proved to be a minefield for some collectors, auction houses and insurance companies alike.

Blockchain technology dispenses with the idea that a centralised system is controlled by one party alone. It is described as a hyper-secure record of digital events that is distributed among many different computers, systems and devices via a ‘distributed’ ledger. This type of connection has proved extremely useful in crime investigation in reducing communication time, thereby speeding up this element of the supply chain usually from scanners, trackers and various street cameras and even in house car technology, that includes car dashboard footage.

If vehicle enabled crime is suspected all devices running on the same connected platform can be tasked to search for one vehicle allowing the speedy flow of information to be more efficient to all involved with a drastically improved ‘near real-time’ data exchange. Important evidence can also show that records of searches are time stamped at creation with 256-bit encryption which makes any data stored highly likely to be both authentic and secure thus making fraudulent alterations extremely difficult.

Experiments being made by manufacturers using a commercial blockchain show that recording the life story of used vehicle including previous owners, service history and damage incurred plus much more information can easily be stored in the vehicle’s memory system allowing cars of the future to be interlinked and used as information gatherers and suppliers.

Unfortunately organised criminal gangs that deal with vehicle theft also use their own blockchain systems, to remain connected with other like-minded groups so they can move easily between types of offending and maximise their own efficiency. Police forces in many parts of the world are struggling to assemble the expertise and hardware needed to cope with huge volumes of digital evidence while worrying about the vast quantities of technicians it will take to sift through it, causing delays that could possibly prevent fraud cases being heard for years.

Notwithstanding the technical, cultural, organisational and financial issues, nor to mention the unnecessarily infringing of individuals’ rights and freedoms, the authorities see much potential for this new technology to spot crime patterns, detect offences and help solve criminal cases. Advanced systems are expected to be able to conduct training courses that would develop valuable skills and knowledge among law enforcement agencies including how they might develop efficient and effective forensic tools that can interrogate virtual currency ledgers, online forums and peer-to-peer networks of underground markets including perhaps seized property.

The internet era is already allowing the police and authorities to fight and prevent crime like never before. The sharing and collating of data from multiple sources across industries is already providing unprecedented insights into where crimes are likely to take place, revealing common characteristics of criminal transactions, detect anomalies in their usage, and identify money-laundering techniques.

While predictive crime software may be controversial it can use artificial intelligence to quickly sift through huge amounts of data from an unimaginable range of data sources such as CCTV cameras, weather reports and even social media feeds from which it predicts where crime is most likely to take place in a given area. What makes this technology unique is the machine learning element, which means the data alone is completely responsible for calculating the predictions, taking away any human preconceptions about what information is most important to predicting and preventing crime. From these predictions the data is used to create heat maps which pinpoint crime hotspots across designated areas, allowing resources to be deployed to prevent crime, rather than reactively fighting crime.

Some police forces are already using advanced AI (artificial intelligence) to assess the potential threat of an arrested suspect to society including whether they should be kept in custody or released on bail. This tool was trained to make its decisions based on collected data including a suspect’s gender and postcode. A two year trial correctly forecasted that a suspect was ‘low risk’ 98pc of the time.

Crime scene management too has been greatly aided by 3D laser scanners which enable accurate remote crime scene mapping by measuring out the dimensions of the crime scene, at a speed of up to tens of thousands of points every second to create a 3D model of the crime scene. Digital photos are then used to turn the model into a photo-realistic 3D model which allows police to interrogate the crime scene as many times as necessary and without having to visit it physically.

Autonomous vehicles also look set to play an important role when it comes to fighting crime with systems such as cameras that can take pictures of any suspicious-looking items placed by an unauthorised person in or fitted to a car which would take action by itself by notifying the police, who presumably would investigate.

Bizarre perhaps, but these smart developing technologies together with future thinking illustrate how engineers are creatively supporting the police with extra eyes and ears.
Already technology exists to stop fleeing offenders in internet-connected cars by police controlling the speed and turning off the engine when safe to do so. Yet to be approved, this as with many other new ideas, need government approval and testing before the police can use them.

Future crime prevention advice will also expect householders to invest in new, smart security technology in their homes that will start video and audio recording when an intruder is detected. A linked information system again using blockchain will circulate valuable evidence that would see descriptions of those responsible and their vehicles circulated in seconds.

More than half of the cars in the world are already connected to the internet and vehicles including motorcycles will soon be able to communicate with each other via incorporated technology that uses information downloaded from road infrastructure, intelligent junctions and public ‘Smart Street’ lighting street cameras, light sensing photocells and other road infrastructures. This information will also provide updates on road conditions and potential hazards, traffic flow and any dangers ahead. Many firms are working on this technology preparing for our autonomous vehicles.

It will also assess how quickly a vehicle should be travelling as it approaches a bend, for example, whilst it feeds data about the angle of the upcoming corner and road conditions, allowing it to calculate the optimum speed for the turn. Experiments with tomorrow’s mirrors that can give daylight vision at night, dipped and high-beam headlights that can automatically lengthen the brightness of the beam depending on the weather and driving conditions will also be incorporated in tomorrow’s vehicles.

LED matrix headlights that will also block out any section of light aimed at an oncoming vehicle so they aren’t dazzled will also offer a brighter more precise light illumination and luminous intensity than xenon bulbs, making it easier for riders to recognise road details and obstacles at night. Tyres that will provide drivers with real-time information about tread depth and temperature which use electrically conductive rubber compounds that continuously monitor the tyre and send out an alert if an anomaly arises in the tyre regarding its wear, object penetration, pressure or safety etc.

Already integrated micro-compressors that adjust the tyre pressure and measure the width of the wheel rim can change the amount of rubber that’s in contact with the road to best suit riding conditions. There are four settings: Normal, Wet, Uneven and Slippery. The wheel is made narrower and the tyre pumped up for riding on smooth, dry roads, while width is increased and pressure reduced for slippery surfaces.

Motor manufacturers are always trying to find ways to make our vehicles more energy efficient and lightweight. Current research carried out by several universities into testing body panels that can store energy and charge faster than conventional batteries have proved successful. It is feared that in 20 years’ time while many cars and motorcycles will be electric or hybrid, without urgent development they will no doubt still be suffering with battery weight and size issues.

As experiments with lithium-ion batteries have still fallen short on resolving the problem so a group of nine motor manufacturers are researching and testing body panels that can store energy and charge faster than conventional batteries of today. The panels used are made of polymer fibre and carbon resin that are strong and pliable enough to be moulded into panels and offer a reduction in weight of 15pc.

It is hoped the body panels will capture energy from regenerative braking and reused. The extra saving in weight would in turn eliminate the wasted energy used to move the weight from the batteries. Further tests adding solar energy to these panels has also been trialled.

Trials with dirt and water phobic paints that use hydro and oleo phobic coatings for its paint finishes have been successful. These coatings use microstructures – similar to those found on plant leaves that repel water and oils so they don’t stick to the paint. Whether it’s controversial facial recognition now widely used in the far east, gimmicky robotic police officers with which the public can pay fines and report crimes through a touch screen system, or perhaps hard to understand nano gadgets and even uncertainty about the effectiveness of autonomous vehicles, all of this AI technology is being developed for law enforcement simply to make the world a safer place.

The caveat to appreciating all of these technical possibilities is that over the next 30 years car crime as we know it will cease to exist. If lessons from the past are learned and these developments for future crime prevention and detection are accepted, cars will become more difficult to steal other than perhaps by fraud or deception which will by then be more advanced.

When electric vehicles become the norm at some point, it has been suggested by many in the motoring world that these incumbent vehicles will not be of great interest to professional car thieves other than for their electric engines and batteries which they contain. Even their charging and docking systems will be of value to thieves only for their metal content.

Many cars and motorcycles of today will hopefully still exist in 30 years’ time as tomorrow’s classics. Whether they will still be allowed on our roads however is still a matter of conjecture. The thieves, their targets and their methods will no doubt by then need a different focus completely from the police service of today with a reported 84,400 vehicles stolen and certainly that of 30 years ago when car theft accounted for nearly 600,000 vehicles stolen in one single year.


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