TOKYO Omron Corp. plans to deliver your stolen car, and the wretched villain inside it, right to the nearest koban (Japanese police box).
"Imagine that someone steals your car, and a network of sensors in the vehicle knows the person driving is not the right person. So using its GPS, it makes the car stop outside the nearest koban and locks the driver inside. This is what I imagine, this is the next stage," said Shin'ichi Mukaigawa, an engineer at Omron's business incubation center, who has designed the basic elements for such a system.
The Tigerbox is Omron's package of tricks based on Hitachi Ltd.'s 32-bit 7034 series and connected to seven sensors placed throughout an automobile. Together with a stripped-down Fujitsu Ltd. mobile phone and a global positioning system (GPS) sensor, the elements form the heart of Omron's experimental car security system.
Now starting a three-month trial phase involving about 40 cars, the system has a two-stage alarm. If a thief bypasses the first alarm, an alert is delivered via e-mail to the owner's mobile phone that an unauthorized person is in the driver's seat.
The rightful owner disables the alarm and enters the vehicle by tapping a password into his or her mobile phone. For budding Bonnies and Clydes, however, something else transpires.
"If a criminal opens the door without using the password, first the lights flash," said Mukaigawa, opening the door of a Nissan sedan laced with the system. "Then, if the driver turns the ignition, the horn sounds," he said, turning the ignition but quickly canceling the horn.
What happens if the criminal disables the bleating horn, which is irritating, though often ignored as noise pollution in urban areas? The system follows up the e-mail with one-minute updates of where the car is via the GPS sensor. Later this year, the Tigerbox system will also alert private security companies affiliated with Tokio Fire and Marine Insurance Co., which advised Omron on how to make the system effective enough to persuade insurance companies to lower their rates for drivers who buy the system.
At the moment, conceded Mukaigawa, Omron has deliberately designed the system to be as cheap, cheerful and effective as possible, uniting well-established technologies into what the company believes is a useful application. The company declined to reveal development costs. If any of the door, engine, trunk, alternator or engine sensors are tampered with, the Tigerbox, buried in the trunk or under the driver's seat, immediately alerts a machine-to-machine (M2M) center. The system is, however, vulnerable to a quick attack for example, if the thief is able to smash the steel-encased box before it can complete its call.
Sensors mounted in the trunk, engine, doors, ignition and alternator are wired into the Tigerbox, which dials up NTT Docomo's 9.6-kbit/second national network via TCP/IP to alert a database-cum-monitoring M2M center. The company has established two of these centers, one in Tokyo and one in Kyoto, that will deliver the e-mails to the owner's i-Mode phone via Docomo's popular Mopera mobile Internet, according to Shoichi Tanaka, a manager at subsidiary Omron Alphatech Corp.'s solution business division.
Notification of an M2M center is just the beginning of Omron's plans, said Mukaigawa. The present Tigerbox system will go on sale later this summer. Omron plans to roll out the engine-kill/to-catch-a-thief function within three years, he said, "subject to police cooperation."
"It will be like a delivery. The car thief to the koban," he joked.
"We could have added our face-recognition technology, and it's easily possible for us to add this with the new generation of camera phones. We could also add our thumbprint sensor technology. But our point is 'cost down.' We'd like it to be cheap enough for many people to be able to afford it," Mukaigawa said.
Omron is also hoping to spur the building of a series of national M2M infrastructures that, using sensors linked to existing wireless and then third-generation (3G) structures, will perform many of the applications intended for smart cards.
The anti-theft system is the first stage of the company's M2M initiative, and Omron hopes to lace its sensor technology into homes and offices over the next five years, said Takashi Asama, assistant manager of the company's business incubation center.
The first application will be extending the anti-theft system into a full-blown telematics network that ties in the auto sensor with insurance companies, garages, manufacturers, security and rental companies. The sensor would warn of accidents, breakdowns and so on. Omron's next application is a safety-monitoring M2M network that could locate kidnapped and lost children, elderly and sick persons, and alert security, insurance and care-services companies, schools, hospitals and retired residents' homes. There are also inventory-tracking and location services to explore, Asama said.
"There are over 173 million machines in Japan, more than a billion devices, and we believe we can put between 5 and 20 sensing devices on each," he said.
Omron will not discuss development partners or schedules, said Toru Takenobu, general manager of the company's business incubation center.
Assuming Omron could put sensors on all of Japan's construction, industrial, vending and farming machines, cars, photocopiers, infants and old folks, the company estimates potential revenues at more than $10.7 billion (1.3 trillion yen) per year. Omron is talking to Docomo and a string of co-developers for these purposes, but just how this will happen is still in the planning stage, Asama said.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of reasons why the basic anti-theft system should grow, said Tanaka.
First off, Omron and Tokio Fire are negotiating with Japan's other big mobile networks, KDDI and J-Phone, to extend the system to their phones and networks, "a simple matter in terms of technology, but politically difficult," said Tanaka. The system will get a multimedia heft and a security boost with 3G's always-on capability. And Omron is also working on upgrades to add a continually updated on-phone GPS map for the not-so-hapless car owner. At the same time, the company intends to begin negotiating with the Japanese police, who already have traffic-monitoring networks.
Climbing auto theft rates, together with Japanese laws that mandate full compensation payments to victims, have compelled Japanese insurance companies to support any technologies that decrease risk, according to Tokio Fire.
Japan's auto theft rate is about a fifth that of the United States. About one out of every 500 cars is stolen, on average, in major Japanese conurbations such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, according to the insurance company. But in 1999, Tokio Fire estimates that Japanese insurance companies nationally paid 41.2 billion yen (approximately $38 million) in compensation for more than 28,000 stolen cars, a 72 percent increase in compensation over 1998. And auto theft increased 67 percent from 1998 to 1999. Each M2M center can handle up to 10,000 alarms simultaneously, said Tanaka.
Omron may expand its system to the United States. Omron sources refused to confirm or deny this, but Mukaigawa hinted that the company was interested in U.S. partners.
"If a partner can help the development, it will be easy to adapt this system to the United States," said Mukaigawa.
"But the United States has so many carriers, so many different systems, incompatible networks. Roaming is the key technology," he added.