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Owlcam Gives a Hoot About Auto Burglaries

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Could dashcams be the answer to San Francisco’s car break-in epidemic?

In an age of security cameras and smartphones, it was only a matter of time until the two were combined to protect one of people’s most valuable assets: their car. Last year, Owlcam, a Palo Alto firm, unveiled a dashcam that can stream interior and exterior video to a smartphone. Essentially a smart camera, it uses artificial intelligence (AI) to capture events such as crashes, dents and break-ins and, by only streaming 10 seconds before and after the incident, it cuts the bandwidth cost associated with conventional security cameras, enabling higher quality images to be transmitted.

Grace Kahng, Owlcam’s chief content officer, has firsthand experience with automobile break-ins. In addition to a series of car window smashings on the block where she lives, 20th and Missouri streets, her assistant’s computer was stolen from a vehicle parked on Connecticut Street. Her children have had items taken twice from automobiles, including backpacks with homework in them – rather than a dog, a burglar ate the schoolwork – and a robotic brain from a science project her son was working on. “Things they needed but useless for anyone else,” she said. 

In the latter case, garage security cameras captured the incident but proved too grainy to identify the thieves.“The problem with video cameras is most of the security cameras that exist right now, they don’t do anything that you need them to do because, first of all, you need to get a PC computer, get a SIM card, screen and look for the times. And the footage is so grainy,” she explained. “The whole point of the Owl is that it is an HD, AI smart camera and you have these very clear images of the criminals. So, they are being arrested, cars are being recovered and people are actually being prosecuted.”

A celebrity success story brought the company national media attention. In February, Carolina Panther fullback Alex Armah got an alert on his cellphone and was able to view, in real-time, a man rummaging inside his Dodge Charger. Armah had purchased the Owlcam after a previous burglary.

“Unfortunately for that thief Alex is very fast. His job is to be very fast. And he caught the guy,” said Kahng. The video of Armah putting a wrestling move on the suspect was captured on the cam and appeared on a segment of ABC’s Nightline.

The cam has a speaker that allows two-way communication should a car owner who isn’t National Football League-size wants to play it safe and startle the culprit orally instead of physically.

Kahng believes that Owlcam can be a criminal justice game changer; lack of evidence is often an issue when it comes to accidents, dents or break-ins. She relayed another success story that took place in the Bronx in which a man had his car stolen from his driveway. Police weren’t optimistic initially, but when he showed them video of the incident they recognized the culprit due to a prior criminal history and recovered the vehicle the same day. 

The Owl requires a $349 investment upfront, which includes one year of downloads. After that the service costs $99 a year or $10 per month. It records a maximum of 60 incidents monthly and saves on a 14-day loop; video needs to be retrieved and downloaded before being automatically deleted.

It comes with front- and interior-facing cameras, which record at a resolution of 1440 and 720 pixels respectively. Twenty second clips can be logged when driving by saying “okay presto.”

Owlcam isn’t the only dashcam on the market that communicates with cellphones. Less expensive ones are made by Garmin and Nextbase, both of which are noted for video quality, but don’t have the notification feature of an incident while your car is parked.

Worldwide demand for dashcams has been growing at an annual rate of about seven percent since 2014 and, according to Markets Watch World, is expected to reach $31.7 billion in sales by 2022. They’re particularly popular in Russia, where accident insurance fraud has been on the rise. According to Grand View Research, 6.5 million units were sold in North America in 2017, prompted partly by ride-hailing drivers wanting to protect themselves against bad reviews or false accusations from passengers.

According to Google’s 2018 Automotive Trends Report, which looks at Google searches, YouTube data and surveys, dashcams are replacing less effective car alarms. Consumers want protection, as well as proof, in case of incidents. The ability to monitor accidents is the primary motive to adopt dashcams, with insurance, security and evidence also prominent reasons. 

Since Owl connects to a car’s On-Board Diagnostic connector, which is usually under the steering column, it’s limited to vehicles built in 1996 or later, when the feature became commonplace.

Other kinks need to be worked out. Since the company’s creator and chief executive officer, Andy Hodge, previously worked at Apple on the team that developed the first iPhone, not surprisingly the cam was initially designed for use with the iPhone 6 and later models. Android capability was added late last year but still has some limitations. The device is powered by the car battery when parked; the cam is designed to shutoff after 24 hours. To appeal to those who keep their vehicle parked for several days, the company is working to increase that capability to 72 hours. It also can only synchronize with one phone, which might create a dilemma for families with multiple people using the car. 

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