How To Pinpoint Car Thieves

March 28, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- The little green car on the computer screen moved steadily along the south side of the Potomac, crossed over Washington's Memorial Bridge and headed back along the north side of the river toward the 14th Street bridge.

Steve Wade, leaning over the computer monitor in suburban Landover, showed how police could track the stolen vehicle's movements and move squad cars into place to surround it.

Mr. Wade pointed to a spot near the Tidal Basin. Here, he said, the dispatcher would send an electronic order to the green car's fuel system.

The message would cut off the flow of gasoline, leaving the confused thief stranded as officers closed in.

Mr. Wade, a customer support engineer for Pinpoint Technologies Inc., was demonstrating one of the applications his company envisions for a vehicle-locating service the company plans to bring to the Washington-Baltimore area by early 1996. Others include fleet management, wireless monitoring of home security alarms and handling debit and credit card transactions from taxicabs.

Pinpoint, a 4-year-old start-up company based in Dallas, received Federal Communications Commission licenses last month to operate digital wireless networks in 16 U.S. cities, including Baltimore. The company expects to test its first system in Dallas a year from now and to go commercial in late 1995. The combined Washington-Baltimore region would be its second or third market, said W. Wayne Stargardt, Pinpoint's vice president for marketing.

The Texas company will join an industry on the brink of a boom. Wireless data transmissions, whether they go over cellular radio waves or some other part of the radio spectrum, are expected to burgeon during the mid- and late 1990s as business and residential customers find a virtually limitless number of uses for the technology.

Pinpoint will operate its vehicle location service in a formerly sleepy segment of the radio spectrum called the industrial, scientific and medical band, which runs from 902 to 928 megahertz.

Mr. Wade said the network would consist of a base location and a series of small antennas sprinkled atop tall buildings throughout a metropolitan area. For the Washington demonstration, the company used four sites, two in downtown Washington and two on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

The 12- to 14-foot fiberglass antennas cost about $20,000 each to deploy, Mr. Wade said, adding that a standard cellular site costs about $500,000.

Mr. Stargardt said the Pinpoint system will let a dispatcher determine the location of a vehicle anywhere in the service area within about 20 yards in suburban areas and 50 feet in downtown areas.

While the Pinpoint system will not allow the dispatcher to talk with the vehicle's driver, it will be able to send and receive data via laptop computers, personal digital assistants, portable fax machines, credit card verification machines and other devices, Mr. Wade said.

Mr. Stargardt said the potential customers for the Pinpoint system include delivery companies, trucking firms, utilities, taxi companies, retail chains, newspapers and government agencies -- just about any entity that operates a fleet of vehicles and wants to keep close tabs on them.

The same technology could also be used for theft prevention, he said. A customer who came out of a mall and found his new Corvette vanished could call the security service and find that it was already tracking the vehicle because the alarm had not been properly disarmed before it was moved. The police could eitherclose in or let it lead them to the local "chop shop."

When Pinpoint comes to the market, it could be facing entrenched competition, however.

Bell Atlantic Mobile will be introducing a rival technology called cellular digital packet data (CDPD) next month, regional Vice President Robert L. Johnson Jr. said.

That service, which can determine a a vehicle's location within a 2-mile area, cannot now approach the locational precision claimed for Pinpoint, but it can perform the same data exchange functions. Its locational precision is expected to improve, Mr. Johnson said.

Meanwhile, other strong competitors can also be expected to join the fray, including Bell Atlantic Mobile's rival Cellular One; American Telephone & Telegraph Co.; and a joint venture of Nextel Communications, MCI Communications Corp. and Comcast Corp.

"We expect to compete on functionality and on price," Mr. Stargardt said, contending that Pinpoint's technology was more cost-efficient than CDPD for sending short transmissions.

Mr. Wade said Pinpoint expects that by the time of its commercial rollout, the remote units in each vehicle being tracked will be reduced from the size of a large stereo to that of a shoe box. He said that the company expects the remote unit eventually to be miniaturized to the size of a wristwatch so that individuals as well as vehicles could be located.

The Pinpoint technology does raise issues of privacy, Mr. Wade admitted. He noted some likely qualms among one group of potential customers.

"A lot of the policemen don't want their supervisors to know how often they're at Dunkin Donuts," he said.

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