Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Empire State Triangle

Despite this blog's name sake, much of what I write about tends to be biographical, or engineering factoids. Not nearly enough is arcane in my opinion. This one is downright obscure, bordering on the oogie boogie category.

In New York City, inside a 5-block square is an area referred to by locals as the Automotive Bermuda Triangle. It is the five block square around the Empire State Building. It is an area where vehicles mysteriously die. The specific borders of the area are unclear but even AAA recognizes that it exists.

“We get about 10 to 15 cars stuck near there every day...You pull the car four or five blocks to the west or east and the car starts right up...." -Isaac Leviev, (Manager of Citywide Towing, the AAA’s exclusive roadside assistance provider from 42nd St. to the Battery)
There are a number of oogie boogie explanations for this of course, but the big theory is that it has a little something to do with it's main 200-foot tower and more specifically the antennas all over it. AAA reports that 10 to 15 cars die on that square every day, an average of 3,000 stalls a year.

So here's the theory. Most of these cars have remote keyless entry. Remote keyless entry systems operate on licensed wavelengths as provided for by the FCC. Some engineers have hypothesized that broadcasts from the Empire State Building can interfere with the remote keyless entry systems of cars. It's like radio jamming. ...And there is some support for this thesis.

Keyless entry does emit a signal from the key fob on your key chain. The RKE system broadcasts an an encrypted data stream which can instruct your over-priced luxury vehicle to start, stop run the defrost or any number of things. But it does so in the 300 MHZ range, that's the top end of the VHF range. This range happens to include FM radio, TV and Aviation. At least two of those three broadcast from 350 fifth avenue. Which one(s) are interfering which which keyless entry cars I do not know. I only have proof of concept.

I understand that the FCC governs channel assignments to prevent these problems. But I also know that they also fine people for violating their licenses and must change laws over time. The FCC reports no complaints regarding RFI around midtown. Many dismiss the phenomena. But it's interesting and it's possible to do by accident. On purpose it'd be downright easy.