Ooh! Mystery part!
July 28, 2005 10:00 PM   Subscribe

TinfoilHatFilter. What is this strange unmarked part in my car?

I have a 2000 VW New Beetle TDI with the 5-speed manual transmission. Today I replaced a bad mass air flow sensor and the brake light switch (which, FYI, is under recall but I don't have the time to take my car to the stealership). As I was poking around near the brake pedal, my eyes came across a little box attached to the underside of the dash. I have seen it plenty of times before, but never really questioned it. It just seemed like perhaps part of the alarm system, and maybe it is.

This time, though, as I took apart the underside of the dash, that box got more and more suspicious. Firstly, I had to unscrew it from the dash plastic to take the underside of the dash off—why would VW put a box down there with an attached wire that blocks that panel? Second, it definitely didn't seem like a factory-standard installation: something about the screw holes and the screws used to mount it seemed professional but not factory-standard. Thirdly, it's completely unmarked—most VW parts have something written on them, like part numbers. It has an unmarked LED on the front, and I don't recall if I've ever seen it lit. It also appears to have some kind of chip inside of it, but I don't dare risk pulling that out without knowing what it is. The wires from the box seem to be tied to a number of things behind the dash underpanel, near the brakes, clutch, and fusebox.

What is this thing? Am I being tracked by the Illuminati or something?

Pictures here and here. Help me figure out what this is!
posted by symphonik to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Best answer: This is an anti-theft device. It usually has a fob that you would need to insert to get the car to start. Yours is obviously not activated. Its an after market or dealer installed part. Guessing you bought it used - this is something you would have had to pay for new.
posted by Wolfie at 10:24 PM on July 28, 2005

Could it be the car's OBD-II or J1850 connector? The connector in the second photo looks a little like this OBD-II connector.

(It may be an Illuminatus Tracking Device disguised as an OBD-II connector…)
posted by hattifattener at 10:25 PM on July 28, 2005

2000 VW New Beetle TDI with the 5-speed manual transmission.

posted by caddis at 11:01 PM on July 28, 2005

A slightly different question: If someone wanted to put a tracking device in symphonik's car, how small could it be, and where would be the most logical place to put it? Would an RFID chip do the trick, or would it require battery power? How could he detect such a device?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:48 PM on July 28, 2005

Tracking-only devices are usually mounted externally on the underside of the car. Anything that can "take control" of parts of the car is likely to be in the engine compartment, for obvious reasons.
posted by trevyn at 11:53 PM on July 28, 2005

As far as size, probably cellphone-sized as a minimum approximation; you need to transmit reasonably powerful radio signals. RFID chips are pretty useless in this context, and it could either use a battery or tap into the car's electrical system, depending on the estimated timeframe of the tracking. Detection is usually just walking around the car with a ground-level mirror to look for suspicious attachments.
posted by trevyn at 11:56 PM on July 28, 2005

I used to have a car with a LoJack system installed -- if the car was stolen, you'd call them, and they'd coordinate with the police, telling them where the car was at any given moment. Used a GPS and a sattellite transponder. Then, when it was at an appropriate place, they'd shut down the ignition and the cops would reel the crooks in.

At least, that's how it read on paper. Never got to try it out.

When they installed it, they specifically made sure I wasn't around so that I wouldn't know where the unit/antenna was. I went looking for it afterwards -- no idea where they hid it. Perhaps I paid for nothing?

Point being, if it were a tracking device installed properly, you'd never know about it.

I think it's the OBD-II connector as well, like hattifattener said.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 12:08 AM on July 29, 2005

Hey! I've seen something like that in my best friend's car, a Dodge Shadow ??

Both of us always thought that it was the thing you plug the diagnostic computer into so the mechanic could figure out what was wrong with the car without working too hard.

Have you posted to the VW boards yet?
posted by idiotfactory at 5:24 AM on July 29, 2005

LoJack doesn't use GPS, if I recall correctly. It's just a radio signal that's tracked through a simple triangulating reciever that points towards the transmitter in the potentially stolen car with an array of LEDs.

(This system works just fine with some basic training. If you've ever "duck hunted" a CB or Ham radio transmitter, you know what I'm talking about. You can do it without a triangulation rig - just a simple directional antennae and a signal meter is sufficient.)

RFID would work if, say, you had a grid of RFID readers already installed over a broad service area.

They already make GPS and inertial/accelerometer based tracking or logging devices about the size of a pack of smokes. A typical use for them is in rental cars. A consumer use is for parents to track their kids driving habits and destinations. Some connect to cellular networks.
posted by loquacious at 5:45 AM on July 29, 2005

Best answer: Why would the owner of that car need to not know where the lojack was?

Sure, it looks like an OBD connector but so do most connectors of that type and size -- I doubt it. Since OBD connecters are standard equipment since, what, the late 80s, it would not be a seperate box screwed on with a cable trailing away from it. That's clearly after market.
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:48 AM on July 29, 2005

RustyBrooks, the reason for the lojack secrecy is to stop less ethical people from having a lojack installed, see where it is installed and then know what to remove the next time they do jack a car.

It's pointless security through obscurity I'd assume, but most likely that's the rational.
posted by substrate at 5:59 AM on July 29, 2005

Why would the owner of that car need to not know where the lojack was?

I assume that lojack is just trying to keep the location of their equipment secret in general. Otherwise, potential theives could just get one installed on their own car, ask where it is and how it's connected, and thus be able to easily locate and disconnect it on the next car her stole.
posted by googly at 6:02 AM on July 29, 2005

I think I once read that Lojack has fifteen or so different places in which they install their devices-- and I think it's good security through obscurity.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:25 AM on July 29, 2005

I assume that lojack is just trying to keep the location of their equipment secret...
Dang, the lojack guy that came to the house to install mine asked me to help him with the installation and was chock full of explanations about where they install them on different cars and why.
posted by GrumpyMonkey at 6:55 AM on July 29, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions ... at this point I'm going to assume it's an old anti-theft device, since the port for the VAG-COM is on the left side of the same panel (but buried more appropriately). Still, I have a little more confidence in tinkering with it now, since the thing seems to be long inactive.

Of course, now I have to worry about MeFites installing hidden tracking devices in my engine compartment... :P
posted by symphonik at 7:52 AM on July 29, 2005

Your engine compartment? Dude, I'd worry more about your socks and underwear.

*hides bottle of sand-sized RFID chips behind his back, whistles innocently*
posted by loquacious at 8:47 AM on July 29, 2005

Did you buy it from a tuner? (Someone who tunes their engine computer for fun, I mean)

They might have transplanted the OBD connector or added a second one, to make it more convenient to plug in their laptop for such work.
posted by baylink at 5:14 PM on August 4, 2005

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