Tesla Has Reinvented The Car Alarm, But Why?

For all the technology involved, the primary function of Sentry Mode remains that of a common car alarm: making loud noises.


Tesla announced some new software updates yesterday. One addition is “Sentry Mode.” This feature uses video architecture in place from Tesla’s autopilot system to thwart potential thieves. Inappropriate touching would activate an “alert” mode. A break-in attempt will activate an “alarm,” deploying harsh lighting and loud music.

The press release cited a vague federal statistic, indicating that there was an attempted motor vehicle theft in the United States every 40.8 seconds in 2017. That jumping off point was curious. Teslas are quite hard to steal. You have to somehow simulate the key fob, either by relaying the fob signal to the car or cloning it. There’s also the blunter route of stealing the key fob from the owner via burglary or robbery. Tesla has a “pin to drive” setting that can stop those attempts cold. Beyond that, the car also has a GPS locator, permitting the owner and law enforcement to track the car’s location in real time.

Those protection layers are incredibly effective. Looking at Tesla data from 2014-17, there was an attempted theft of a Tesla about every 7.4 days. Very few of these attempts are successful. Only three of 118 Tesla vehicles stolen were not recovered. The number on average is more than 40 percent. In short, if you can figure out how to steal a Tesla successfully, you’re smart enough to get a tech job which will afford you one.

Sentry mode may have more impact thwarting break-ins vs. outright thefts. Model 3 owners in the Bay Area have been complaining in multiple forums about what appears to be a particular type of break-in to the trunk through the rear quarter window and rear seat. A rational way to combat such break-ins, with minimal hassle, would be a software update deploying the existing autopilot camera architecture as a deterrent.

The question is how well that will work. Car alarms are problematic because they get ignored, particularly in urban areas. For all the technology involved, the primary function of Sentry Mode remains that of a common car alarm, making loud noises when the vehicle gets breached. Having it be a characteristic Tesla-style alarm won’t elicit additional public diligence. An app alert may help. But, one suspects reaction times would be far too slow to achieve anything, even if one were inclined to confront a miscreant.

The value with Sentry Mode comes from its video surveillance. That does have a vulnerability. Tesla owners must hook in a formatted USB drive, before engaging Sentry Mode, to download the video. A thief could, presumably, just steal the USB drive. But, that would necessitate entering the vehicle. Those few extra seconds may be just enough of an annoyance for a prospective thief to move on to the next Tesla.

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