Hotwiring a Car in an Emergency
You have seen it done in movies many times before. Is hotwiring a car really as easy and fast as they make it look? Read on to learn how to hotwire a car and understand the mechanics behind it.
Hotwiring is probably something you saw done in movies but never quite understood how it works. It is a process in which the vehicle’s ignition interlock is bypassed and the engine is started without a key.
It is often associated with car theft though it is a useful skill to have. A car owner can use this method to start the engine when they have lost the keys.
There are several ways to hotwire, or start the car without the original key. Some require more technical expertise than others and should probably not be attempted by anyone without significant know how on the workings of an engine.
That said, it goes without saying that you can never try hotwiring someone else’s car. You don’t want to find yourself in handcuffs trying to explain to the police that you were just curious about how hotwiring works.
To understand how hotwiring works, let’s look at how the car starts, ordinarily. When you put the key in the ignition and turn it, an electrical circuit is completed. This circuit goes from the battery (power source) to the ignition and then to the starter motor. As soon as the motor is powered, the engine starts. It completes this circuit and starts the car without the use of a key.
Can All Cars Be Hotwired?
Have you noticed car thieves in recently released movies don’t hot wire cars anymore? There is a reason for that. This method is only possible in older cars, which is those made in the mid-nineties and before. Modern cars are built with electronic locking systems and the requisite wiring is not easily accessible so hotwiring is not so straight forward.
You can use one of several methods to hotwire a car. The conventional and most common method is the one we see in movies involving stripping and joining wires somewhere below the steering wheel. Whichever method you choose, make sure you assemble all the tools and equipment required before you start.
If you can choose a location, have the car in a safe place with minimal traffic and as few distractions as possible. Have the car on flat ground and engage neutral gear. Make sure the parking brake is engaged.
How to Hotwire A Car in an Emergency
This is the conventional method which is done on older cars. This is what was often used to steal cars because it can be done fairly quickly when one knows exactly how to do it.
What you need:
Before you start, these are a few things you will need.
- A flat-blade screw driver
- A wire stripper
- Electricians’ tape
- Owners’ manual
It is also a good idea to have your driver’s license and proof of ownership of the car in case someone questions your motives.
Put the screwdriver in the keyhole of the ignition like you would the key. Turn it just like you would turn the key. In some vehicles, this is enough to get the engine started. If it works then your mission is accomplished and you need not proceed with the next steps. If it doesn’t, proceed to step number 2.
Locate the steering column cover then locate screws on either side holding it in place. Remove the screws. Once the cover is lifted off, you should be able to see some access panels. Take these out and locate the ignition system wires.
At this point you should have in front of you 3 bundles of wires in separate colors. One bundle is for the car’s lights, the other is for the wipers and warmers and the third for battery and ignition. Ignore the first two and focus on the third one.
In this third bundle, there are wires connecting to the starter motor, ignition system and battery. Use the owner’s manual to locate the one connected to the ignition system and the one connected to the battery.
Strip these two wires. Once that is done, take these two ends and twist them together with your fingers.
If the ignition lights and car radio come on, you have done the first four steps correctly but you can’t start the engine just yet.
Now get the wire which leads to the starter motor. Slice a piece of insulation off it like you did with the other two wires. Now this is the part we see in the movies: Take the naked part of this wire and bring it into contact with the other two. This will start the engine.
You cannot twist the wires with your fingers like with the others because you are now dealing with a live wire. Touching it will electrocute you.
Use a piece of electrician’s tape to cover the end of the starter wire which is still live. If you accidentally touch it you will be electrocuted and if it comes into contact with something else, it could start a fire.
Rev the engine several times and let it run for a few minutes before driving. You don’t want to have the car stall while you are on the road and be forced to start the process again in the middle of a highway.
How to Hotwire A Car Using Jumper Cables
Step 1. Find the red coil wire
Pop the hood and locate the red coil wire. In 6 cylinder engines, you will find it on the left hand side near the middle of the engine while in 4 cylinder engines they are on the right near the center of the engine.
Step 2. Power the dashboard
This is where your jumper cables come in. Run one of the cables from the positive battery terminal to the positive end of the coil. You could also run the cable to the red wire leading to the coil. This powers the dashboard which must be done before the engine can be started.
Step 3: Find the starter solenoid
It is in different places in different models. In GM cars for instance it is on the starter beneath the steering wheel. In Fords you will find it on the right hand fender next to the battery. If you have trouble locating it, use the owner’s manual as a guide.
Step 4. Connect the solenoid and the positive battery terminal
There is a small wire above the solenoid. Remove the ignition switch wire from the solenoid and then use an insulated screwdriver to short the positive post on the solenoid to the terminal connecting the ignition switch.
This supplies 12 volts directly from the battery which activates the solenoid and starts the car.
How to Hotwire A Car Using a Screwdriver
For this method you will need
- A screwdriver
- A drill
Step 1. Position the drill about 1/3 of the way down on the keyhole. Your aim here is to break the lock pins which the key ordinarily turns.
Step 2. Estimate the length of the key and drill in a similar distance. Each lock pin has a spring and two sections. You will need to drill a few times to break them.
Step 3. Put the screwdriver in the keyhole and turn it like you would the key. The engine should start.
This method is commonly used in situations where a driver has lost the keys. Of course you cannot use the keys even when you find them and the ignition lock system must be repaired.
How To Hotwire a Car Using a Paper Clip
Yes, you can start your engine using a paper clip. You will need a paper clip and a test light. This is how to do it.
- Pop the hood and locate the fuse box
- Locate the crank fuse and remove it
- Check the numbers written on the side of the fuse. These numbers are a guide indicating the specific relays which connect for the car to start.
- Now use the test light to go through the fuse relays (where the fuse fits) to check which one has power. The powered relay will light the test light and the others will not.
- Now go back to the numbers written on the side of the fuse and check the exact position of the relay which connects to the powered one. It could be next to it or across from it.
- Place one end of the paper clip on the powered relay and the other on the one which connects to it. The car should start.
There may be some light sparking when the circuit is completed but it does not stop the car from starting. Although it is called the ‘paper clip’ method, you don’t have to use a paper clip. You can use any other conductive material.
Hotwiring a Car with an Immobilizer
It has been said that it is impossible to hotwire a modern car. The reason for this is because newer cars come with an immobilizer which makes the conventional hotwiring process useless. Even then, it is possible to start a car fitted with an immobilizer, without a key.
Let’s take a few steps off the path to understand how an engine immobilizer works.
How Engine Immobilizers Work
An immobilizer is an anti-theft system which is built into the ECU (Engine Control Unit). It works by preventing the engine from starting if the authorized key is not in the ignition or the key fob in the vehicle. An electronic chip is embedded into the ECU and the key also has a transponder chip in which the vehicle’s password or electronic security code is stored.
When you insert the key into the ignition or take the smart key fob with you into the car, the key transmits the code to the ECU. If the code in the chip in the key and the one embedded in the ECU don’t match, the ECU does not activate the fuel system and the ignition circuit so the car cannot start.
Immobilizers have been a mandatory inclusion in cars since October of 1998. If your car was made after this date, you can be sure it came with a factory installed immobilizer. If you didn’t buy it brand new, it probably still has one although there is the small chance that the previous owner did away with it.
If your car was made before this date, you can always have an immobilizer system installed.
How Immobilizers Are Circumvented
Immobilizer systems promised 100 percent security but it is clear that car thieves are working to find ways around every new security measure. One method being used to circumvent engine immobilizers is where one goes to a junkyard and removes the ECU, reader and chip from a car.
These are then swapped into the vehicle they want to steal. This way the new ECU will recognize the chip they have and the car will start. No conventional hotwiring necessary.
After this the ignition lock is broken and the ignition switch ripped off. Once this is done, the replacement chip can be held by the reader and a screw driver used to start the car. Although it is not as fast as conventional hotwiring, it can be done noiselessly and has been successfully used to steal cars many times.
Bypassing Chip Keys
Chip keys or transponder keys are car keys which have a chip embedded into them. The chip must match another chip in the ECU for the car to start. It does help as a security measure but what if your wife keeps losing her chip keys?
Considering the high cost of replacing original chip keys and the additional hassle of having them programmed, it may be a good idea to find a way to bypass the key chip transponder. This way you can replace lost car keys for much less.
If a set gets lost, simply buy a blank key, have it cut for your ignition and you are good to go.
How to Bypass Chip Keys
For this you will need a razor knife and some duct tape (preferably black)
- Cut open the plastic casing attached to the key. Identify the seam-like connection of two halves of the casing. Use the razor knife to cut it open. Once the casing is open, pull off the chip. Chips are quite small so be careful not to lose it.
- Tape the chip onto the key lock cylinder in your car. Assuming the interior of your car is black, use black duct tape so that it is not too conspicuous.
This process ensures that the chip is always there so you don’t have to incur the hefty cost of buying and programming new original keys when a set gets lost. The disadvantage is that it ceases to be a security feature because anyone with a key which can start your engine can steal the car.
Steering Wheel Lock
Even after getting the engine up and running by hotwiring, don’t forget that many cars have a steering wheel lock feature. It would be impossible to drive with the steering wheel locked (you would have to drive in a straight line) so you have to deal with this as well.
How to Break the Steering Wheel Lock
For some models, it is enough to pop off the keyhole because this releases a spring and breaks the lock. If you started the hotwiring process by attempting to get the car started with a screwdriver jammed into the keyhole, the steering wheel lock is probably already broken.
In other vehicles you will need to twist the wheel from side to side with as much force as your arms can give. This should eventually break the lock.
If this still doesn’t work, use a hammer to fix in the wheel and use it for leverage. The lock should break leaving the wheel free for you to steer normally.
New Technologies for Car Theft
Hotwiring was the main method used by car thieves to make away with cars before introduction of immobilizers. With that era gone, it is not surprising that car thieves have come up with new ways to keep their business going… and they too are taking advantage of technological advancements.
OBD Port hacking
OBD 2 is a car’s on-board computer which monitors mileage, speed, emissions and a host of other data to ensure that all systems are working as they should. It is connected to the ‘Check engine’ light which comes on when a problem is detected.
The OBD port is a connection point in the vehicle which is used by mechanics to investigate and diagnose problems in a car by connecting a device used to read trouble codes.
Coding devices can be plugged into the OBD via the OBD port to control certain functions of the car. The car’s alarm system can be disabled, the doors can be unlocked and most importantly, the engine can be started by simulating a key’s action in the ignition.
It is a legal requirement for OBD ports in all cars to be easily accessible so a thief will easily locate an OBD port in seconds. On the other hand, encryption devices capable of simulating car keys and reprograming car security settings are easily available for purchase from online sellers.
Tech-savvy car thieves don’t have to struggle much. With a good understanding and implementation of these technologies, a car thief can be get your car moving in under 20 seconds. It is even faster than hotwiring.
To protect yourself from this kind of theft, you can purchase an OBD port lock which will ensure no one gains access to your car’s computer without your knowledge. It is also advisable to make sure that all vital security software in the computer is updated regularly to protect it from hackers.
Does Hotwiring a Car Damage It?
Yes, there will be some damage to the car after hotwiring it. If you got into some kind of emergency and had to hotwire your car, here is some information on the kind of repair work you would be looking to have done after the emergency is dealt with.
The first and most obvious damage is to the wiring because you had to cut and strip wires. Secondly, there will be damage to the ignition system. If you jammed a screw driver into the keyhole, the ignition switch is damaged.
Third is the steering wheel lock system which you had to break to be able to steer the car. If the hotwiring process was done right, this is more or less what you will need to have repaired.
A mechanic who is well versed with wiring repair should be able to get your car back to perfect shape, as long as there was no short-circuiting or melted wires.
Contrary to popular opinion, properly done hotwiring does no damage to the engine.
What if It Was Not Done Quite Right?
This is where potential for major damage lies. In the event that you did something incorrectly or that something goes wrong, you could end up with expensive and perhaps permanent damage.
If for instance, the starter wire touches the exposed HOT wire while you are driving, it will burn the starter motor out.
What is perhaps the most dreaded damage is if the exposed HOT wires touch a grounded metal near it as you drive. This will cause a short which could fry some of the car’s circuits. Long term damage could come up from this point.
An exposed HOT wire could start melting the insulating coat on other wires such that they are thinned but still thick enough to work for a while. After some time they start to cause short-circuiting. This means that a short could occur any time in the future even if it is a year after the day you hotwired your car.
Exposed or partially melted insulation on wires are extremely difficult to spot even when you have a professional technician working on your car.
Hotwiring, Immobilizers and Insurance
Car theft costs insurance companies billions of dollars every year. Insurers spend this to repair or replace stolen cars. According to the Insurance Information Institute, there were 748,841 reported cases of car theft in 2018, and 772,943 in 2017.
Most of these cars are chopped up and spare parts sold. Others (especially high end vehicles) are shipped off and sold in black markets in Asia.
This is why car insurers readily reward owners who go the extra mile to keep their cars safe from criminals. These owners get to enjoy insurance discounts on the assumption that their cars are less likely to be stolen. Immobilizers are considered a very effective deterrent and most insurers rate this security measure highly.
Other anti-theft measures recognized by insurance companies are electronic alarms, installation of satellite tracking devices, locking devices and engraved VINs (vehicle identification number)
Another detail insurance companies want to hear is that you have Thatcham approved immobilizers and other devices installed in your car. What is Thatcham?
There are hundreds of different car alarms, immobilizers and other security devices in the market. They all come with varying features, strengths and weaknesses so it can be mind boggling for a consumer to make a decision on which one is best.
The Thatcham Research Institution independently rates all these immobilizers and alarms according to their categories and gives consumers information they can use to make an informed purchase decision.
‘Thatcham devices’ is therefore the description used to refer to immobilizers and other devices which have been assesses by Thatcham Researchers. Certified devices are referred to as Thatcham Approved.
The institute is based in the UK but its certification is recognized in other parts of the world.
It does look pretty cool in the movies but hotwiring a car is risky business. It is dangerous in terms of your personal safety as well as in terms of the safety of the car. There is always a chance of electrocution if live wires are not handled with caution.
There is also the chance of permanent damage to the car’s systems, some of which is almost impossible to identify even for a professional technician.
The bottom line is that hotwiring should only be used in emergencies and never as an everyday method of starting the car. If you are learning how to hotwire a car, never use someone else’s car. When you hotwire your own car, be prepared to prove that you are the legitimate owner in case anyone raises security questions.
Is Hotwiring Real or Part of The Act in Movies?
It is a real process which can be done on any car made before the mid-nineties. It is simply a process where the electrical circuit from the battery to the ignition and to the starter, which is usually completed using a key, is completed by some other means.
Is It Illegal to Hotwire My Car?
There is nothing wrong with hotwiring your own car in the event of an emergency but hotwiring a car that belongs to someone else is illegal. However, because hotwiring is often used in car theft, it is best to have your driver’s license and proof of ownership of the car available when hotwiring your car.
Another consideration is that hotwiring requires more than a fair amount of skill. If done wrong it could cause some expensive damage to the vehicle. It is best not to attempt to hotwire someone else’s car to avoid liabilities in case something goes wrong.
What Wires Do You Use to Hotwire a Car?
Once the plastic cover on the steering column is removed, you will be able to see a few bundles of wires. The bundle you are looking for is the battery, ignition and starter one. These 3 are all you need to hotwire the car. Ignition wires are usually brown or yellow and the battery wire is, in most cases, red.
Why Can’t My Car Be Hotwired?
All cars made in the mid-nineties and before can be hotwired. Since then manufacturers make cars with anti-theft systems. A chip in the key fob is required in order for the car to start. This system cannot be hotwired.
Has Inability to Hotwire New Cars Reduced Car Theft?
Yes. Up until about 2007, car theft by hotwiring (officially known as ‘forced ignition theft) was the main method used by car thieves. It has declined drastically over the years.
Today, car key theft is by far the most common method used by car thieves and accounts for about 65% of cars stolen every year. In 40% of these cases, the keys are stolen from the owner’s home during a burglary.
How Can I Hotwire a Truck?
The conventional method discussed works more or less the same in trucks. The difference in trucks is that the position of the ignition switch may be different from other vehicles. In older trucks, the ignition switch is placed below the steering wheel either on the right below the dash or the left near the door.
How Long Does It Take to Hotwire a Car?
It depends on how good you are at the process and how familiar you are with the car’s wiring. If you have a good grasp of these then it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes since there are only two wires to be connected and a third to be brought into contact with the other two. It definitely does take longer than they do in movies.
Can My Car’s Computer Be Tampered with Without Access to The Obd Port?
Yes, initially, tech-savvy car thieves could only access your car’s computer by connecting a lap top to it through the OBD port. This means they had to gain access into the car.
Now more advanced car theft groups can hack into a car’s CAN bus system (a group of all the car’s on-board micro-computers) using a laptop, a circuit board and a satellite. The use of satellite technology means they can send signals to a car miles away from where they are.
How Do I Know if My Car Has an Immobilizer?
All cars made and sold in the US since October of 1998 have immobilizers because this is when it became a mandatory inclusion. If your car was made after this, it probably has an immobilizer. You could also check the owner’s manual to confirm.