Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2004 | 11:09 a.m.
It was not a terrorist plot aimed at frustrating Las Vegas motorists into stomping on their keyless entry remote devices or ripping their car alarms from their vehicles.
It was not sun spots playing havoc with atmospheric conditions, nor Las Vegas' blistering climate nor even little green men from Mars, though some pondered that the failure of the devices that lock and unlock their car doors from a distance could have been caused by extra-terrestrials.
Nope. The problem turned out to be just a broken switch.
A team including two Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. engineers came to Las Vegas this month to find what caused the domino-size devices used by thousands of people in the valley to stop working in February and sporadically since then. They found the source in a faulty radio signal repeater atop Frenchman Mountain in the east end of the valley.
"The repeater had been stuck on transmit probably since its last use during the winter," said Maurice Durand, spokesman for Ford Motor Co. in Los Angeles. "The continuous and relatively strong nature of the signal produced the interference with many of the (remote entry) keyfobs and garage remotes in the Las Vegas and Henderson areas."
Such devices have been booming in popularity in recent years. The installation rate of remote keyless entry systems on U.S.-made cars rose from about 10 percent in 1991 to nearly 70 percent by the end of 2001, according to the automotive industry publication Ward's Automotive Reports.
But, in recent years, incidents of device failures seemingly have been more frequent. The Washington Post, in its July 5 editions, told of a similar incident this year in Waldorf, Md., where automobile owners were frustrated on several occasions by malfunctioning remote entry devices.
Three years ago thousands of drivers in Bremerton, Wash., experienced similar problems, and in May a two-way radio system tested at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida jammed remote-control garage door openers in communities near the base, the newspaper reported.
The pinpointing of the problem in Las Vegas was a relief to Nellis Air Force Base officials, as speculation of the source had included jamming mechanisms from military planes or equipment.
"When we went to our frequency managers here at the base with the reports we were getting they gave us a strange look and said we just don't operate at that frequency," said Mike Estrada, deputy director of the public information office at Nellis, who experienced problems with the device on his Izuzu Rodeo.
Estrada said his keyless entry remote would "work on one part of the base and not work on another, and both sites were in the direct line of vision of Frenchman Mountain."
The keyless entry systems that experienced problems locally operate at a medium frequency of 315 megahertz, a level several entities use, including some cell phone operators, freight dispatchers and even radio stations with malfunctioning equipment, Ford officials said.
The majority of keyless entry systems operates at 315 megahertz.
Estrada said for a while there had been concerns that maybe an aircraft at Nellis had switched to the wrong radio frequency and was inadvertently jamming the keyless entry systems. "Several years ago we had a C-130 that was operating on the wrong frequency and it temporarily took out the television system in the Pahranagat Valley" in Lincoln County, Estrada said. "We got a lot of calls on that one."
The Las Vegas Valley outage in February resulted in auto dealerships being flooded with calls from upset customers.
"At one point we were getting a hundred calls a day from not only our customers but also owners of Dodges, who were told by their dealers to call us," said Katie Baumann, a service operator at the Ford Country dealership in Henderson. "But there was nothing we could do about it."
The Ford engineers had their work cut out for them.
"Our team brought equipment, including antennas that were mounted on a Ford Freestar that detected minute differences in the time between signals, which gave us an approximate direction (of the source)," said John Van Wiemeersch, security products supervisor at Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
"It took a while because signals were bouncing off of buildings. The team did a lot of driving through cities and highways to get a fix on it."
Nabil Hachem, a Ford security applications engineer who was part of the three-man team that included Ford engineer Earl Morris and John Cabigao, an employee with Alps, maker of the remote devices, said it took five days to detect the direction of the signal and get to the source of the problem.
"With the equipment and expertise we had we were confident we would find the source," Hachem said.
He said the company responsible for the antenna that was malfunctioning brought his team up the roadless mountain, 4,000 feet above sea level, in a four-wheel vehicle so they could zero in on the problem.
Once the problem was found, the owners of the tower fixed it, he said.
Ford officials refused to name the company whose signal jammed their equipment, saying the act was unintentional and that Ford does not want the company to become a potential target of retaliation from those who were inconvenienced by repeated disruptions.
Van Wiemeersch said that while Ford took the lead in resolving the problem, a number of automotive manufacturers were affected by the service disruptions.
"We sent a seasoned team out there not because this was a Ford issue, but because all of the region's consumers who drove all makes and models (with 315 megahertz systems) were affected," he said.
Van Wiemeersch said Ford is working to reduce the numbers of such incidents, but he said it is doubtful that interruptions in services will ever be totally eliminated.
"It is a situation similar to a shouting match where someone has a louder voice that drowns you out," Van Wiemeersch said."The most we can do is tighten the bandwidth of receivers to limit potential incidents, which we are doing. But we're still vulnerable. That's just the physics of the system."
While declining to say how much Ford spent on the operation, Van Wiemeersch said the travel and other expenses were considerable.
"We went to Las Vegas gambling because there was the possibility that we might not have found it," he said.