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Will Tracking Technology Help Combat Vietnam's Chronic Bike Theft Problem?

The surest way to keep your bike safe might just be to lo-jack it.

Outside Scott & Jeremy’s in District 1, Jordan Hall and Guy Pierce size up my bike. I’ve bugged them into meeting me here to talk about tracking technology, and where, if possible, they could hide the required equipment on my bike, a café racer with little casing space for their cargo.

But what I imagined to be a deal breaker turns out not to be a problem at all.

“We could install it under the seat, or in the frame,” says Hall, gesticulating with his arms in a hands-on interview with Saigoneer. Then he turns to the front headlights: “There’s a useless panel in between the bulb and the electrical system in this light. We could even put one there.”

Hall, 21, and Pierce, 22, have done these installations before. Their start-up, VieTrack, is just two months old, and they are betting that in Saigon, tracking systems like theirs will become an increasingly popular defense against theft.

Among mechanics, southern Vietnam is well known for bike thefts. You can learn to steal an unlocked motorbike on YouTube in a matter of minutes, and disc-locks provide only a slight obstacle for professional thieves, who can use hydrochloric acids to quickly melt locking mechanisms. Pierce and Hall talk about bike-trafficking rings that have been known to shuffle stolen vehicles across the Cambodian border, where bikes get broken down and parts are liquidated, reportedly at a higher price than in Vietnam.

In January, police in Da Lat busted one such ring, as Tuoi Tre reported, arresting at least eight men. The ring admitted to committing over 20 thefts and is accused of many more. According to the group's members, each would earn VND1.6 million (US$66) per hot bike successfully delivered to Ho Chi Minh City from Da Lat. Meanwhile, last week a knife-fight occurred when a group of "street knights" attempted to stop a gang of five bike thieves in District 3. Two were fatally wounded, as also reported by Tuoi Tre.

Incidents like these, while not isolated, have been a source of insight into a system for which statistics are sorely lacking. But even if the evidence of continuing bike theft is anecdotal, it's easy to believe the threat is real.

“Every now and then people have had their bike stolen,” says Hall. “You talk to people, and they mention a list of people in their circle, but its all word of mouth. There aren’t any actual statistics.”

If a VieTrack-equipped bike were to be stolen in such a manner, Hall and Pierce’s app, which uses software from Concox, a Chinese company, would detail every step of the trip. It would also be able to seize control of the bike’s engine remotely, allowing it to be shut off so long as the bike is moving below 20 kilometers per hour.

“People like having that security,” says Pierce, whose bike has a tracker installed. “There’s that confidence that your bike’s not going to get taken.”

Over lunch, Hall displays a version of their tracking application on his iPhone. It is impressive, albeit a bit Orwellian in its surveillance capacity. Built onto a live-feed of Google Maps, VieTrack displays thick green lines indicating every road that Pierce has driven on in the past day, detailing his speeds at each time and on each road. He extends it to a week, and then to a month. The sprawling green lines multiply.

Other companies, primarily Viettel, have also debuted similar products, which Hall and Pierce say are more expensive. A one-year subscription to VieTrack runs around VND1.5 million. Viettel's model, V-Tracking, runs at about twice the price, VND2.85 million VND.

More start-ups have emerged with similar products as well. In 2012 Setech Viet introduced a tracker, and a company called SmartBike sold a similar tracker as recently as 2017. Neither company responded to request for comment.

Of course, questions about the use of such an app abound. Practically, how would you retrieve a stolen motorbike, and how would private companies like VieTrack mesh with public institutions like the police?

Their competitor, SmartBike, has already said they’ll mostly market their trackers to companies with fleets of vehicles. “We’ve been talking to delivery businesses about our device and they really need it,” Quan Dinh, SmartBike’s founder, told Oi Vietnam in 2013. “We’re interested in selling directly to them.”

VieTrack hopes to pull off something similar, raising a broader question for the future of these devices. What use might the future hold for large amounts of highly accurate traffic data? In Saigon, which has aggressive aims to become a "smart city" by 2025, data of that nature could become invaluable. Smart traffic systems, like those currently implemented in Singapore, are built around using user data of this type to inform traffic management.

“Imagine with a thousand bikes, this kind of data,” says Hall. “Imagine what it’ll do.”

For now, entrepreneurs like Hall and Pierce are biding their time, selling peace of mind to a relatively narrow market demographic. But their product is rapidly evolving, and not even they know what the future will hold.

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