An Apple AirTag could be used to track all manner of things: people, belongings, pets and even vehicles. But is a $29 device really up to the job of tracking the whereabouts of your car – especially if it’s stolen?
I’ve spent the past week using the AirTag to track my partner’s car, as she goes about her daily commute and everyday life. Here’s what I’ve found – and why the AirTag might well prove to be worth every cent if your car is stolen.
Locating a stolen car
The key question I suspect most people want answered is could the AirTag help track down a stolen car. I’d give that a qualified ‘yes’.
Let’s be clear about the AirTag’s limitations right up front. This is not a great device for live tracking. Don’t think that if you see your car being stolen off the drive, you’ll be able to see a little dot moving across Apple Maps, plotting the car’s live journey. It’s not a GPS tracker and the updates provided from an AirTag are sporadic.
The AirTag works by connecting to nearby iPhones or iPads using ultra-wideband technology. That has a maximum range of about 30ft (9m). The key thing is that the AirTag doesn’t have to lock on to your iPhone to provide a location – it will latch onto any modern iPhone or iPad. If your car thief happens to have an iPhone on them, the updates might be regular. If not, you could be waiting ten minutes, half an hour or even hours between location updates, because it will need someone to pass close by with an iPhone/iPad.
This obviously means that the AirTag is a much better tracker in busy urban environments than it is in rural areas. If your stolen car is dumped down a quiet country lane or in the middle of nowhere, the chances of your AirTag locking onto a nearby iPhone are obviously greatly reduced.
That said, the AirTag has managed to accurately locate the parked location of my partner’s car every time this week. When she’s parked the car at work, the location has even been accurate enough to reveal what part of the open-air car park she’s parked in, meaning I’d be confident of finding the vehicle if it were stolen and dumped with the AirTag inside.
One of the advantages of using an AirTag rather than a GPS system to track a vehicle is that it can still locate cars in underground car parks, such as the one in the map above, for example. And if you’re trying to locate your vehicle in said car park, the ‘Precise Finding’ feature (only available on iPhone 11 or 12 models) might even help you pinpoint the car’s exact location in that car park, although by the time Precise Finding kicks in you’ll probably be able to see the car anyway.
Note from the screenshot that the Find My app provides a precise address for the AirTag’s location, complete with postcode (or zip code), as well as a time for when it was last located. That information could be vital if you’re trying to convince the police to attend to a stolen vehicle, for instance.
Placing the AirTag in the car
One concern you might have about using an AirTag to track your car is whether the device has to be placed in open sight to send/receive a signal (ie. on the dashboard). That would make it much easier for car thieves to spot and discard.
The good news is that isn’t the case. My partner has put the AirTag in various hidden locations within the car this week, including in the glove box and in a compartment in the boot and the device has continued to send a location beacon. You could even slip the tiny AirTag disc in the lining of the car or under a small incision the carpet, making it very hard for thieves to know they are being tracked.
That said, there may be one or two telltale signs for the thieves. If the thief uses a modern iPhone, they may trigger Apple’s anti-stalking feature, which pops an alert on their phone to say that an unknown AirTag is moving with them. However, that won’t kick in for 72 hours after the AirTag was last in range of its owner, so you should have a decent window to locate a stolen car.
The AirTag might also beep to draw attention to itself after a sustained period away from its owner. That again may alert a thief to its presence.
Other reasons to leave an AirTag in a car
There are other strong reasons, besides straight theft, why it might be handy to have an AirTag sat in your car permanently.
For one, it can help you find the car if you’ve forgotten where you’ve parked it. I can see this being particularly useful in places such as theme parks or shopping malls, where one parking lot looks much like another.
An AirTag might also prove useful is you suspect a repairer or valet parking is up to no good with your car. If you can show, for example, that your car is 30 miles from where it should be when you left it with the airport parking firm, that is pretty strong evidence. Note, however, that AirTags provide no location history, you only get the last known location. You’d have to catch the perpetrators in the act.
The other reason is simply to know where someone is. If you share a family car or have lent your car to someone, it helps you locate them without having to call them. Just make sure everyone who uses the vehicle is fully aware of the AirTag’s presence. Stalking isn’t cool, in any context, and is often illegal.