Right connections01 March 2012
Apps for everything – Keith Howard asks
if they will ever replace the car key
Thatcham Motor Insurnce Repair Centre in
the UK, which sets standards on whole vehicle security assessments, comments: "Until a vehicle using the technology or an aftermarket product is submitted to Thatcham for testing, we won't know its vulnerabilities."
When did someone last run a hot bath for you as you headed home from a hard day in the office? Maybe never. But, via your smartphone, you could at least be able to warm (or cool) the cabin of your car before you climb into it for that journey back.
The motor industry's desire to create connected cars has already embraced the smartphone.
Naturally enough, the first vehicle manufacturers to implement smartphone connectivity have used mobile 'phone communication for remote connection to the car and – in the cases of Mercedes-Benz (with its mBrace system) and GM (with its OnStar system) in the US – elected to make the services subscription based. So the user pays twice: for the service and for the data connection. Reliance on mobile 'phone technology also means, of course, that smartphone-to-car connectivity is lost in locations where there is no mobile 'phone coverage.
Delphi's Gateway Key Fob technology – as yet unavailable on any production vehicle, but likely to make its debut within the next three years – takes a different tack. Rather than rely on a mobile 'phone connection, it expands the capability of the existing radio link between key fob and car that already provides remote lock/unlock and perhaps other functionality, too. The difference with the Gateway Key Fob is that it also incorporates NFC (near field communication) and, optionally, Bluetooth interfaces that allow connection to a smartphone, tablet or any other device with the same interface capability.
In effect, the key fob in Delphi's system acts as a range extender for these short-range 'phone interfaces. The connection to the car is subscription-free – a feature that car buyers are likely to welcome, if not car manufacturers who view the connected car as a revenue stream – and the non-reliance on the mobile 'phone network frees the system from network delays, as well as from gaps in coverage. "We point out that this technology is complementary," says Delphi's Craig Tieman, "and
can be used in conjunction with a connected car. You then have a more robust system, which will still operate when either the vehicle or the 'phone is outside cellular coverage."
The ultimate prospect is that the smartphone will replace the conventional car key altogether – a future envisaged by Continental at this year's IAA Frankfurt motor show. Continental's technology uses NFC sensors in the vehicle door and vehicle cabin: the first opens the door when the owner's smartphone is brought within 5cm (see picture) and the second allows the car to be started. If the smartphone is not in its cradle, then the vehicle cannot be operated. Neither function depends on battery charge in the smartphone.
Clearly, this wide variety of smartphone-based systems represents new security vulnerabilities, particularly given recent press stories about the ease with which smartphones can be hacked. But the nature and scope of those vulnerabilities is not entirely clear and there's at least a hint that the technology is running ahead of a comprehensive assessment of the risks. When asked to comment on the problem, Thatcham Motor Insurance Repair Centre in the UK, which sets standards on whole vehicle security assessments, replied: "Until a vehicle using the technology or an aftermarket product is submitted to Thatcham for testing, we won't know its vulnerabilities."
There is a general view in the automotive industry that the hacking of encrypted communications between car and smartphone is unlikely to be a serious vulnerability, particularly while stealing the key remains the easiest way of gaining unauthorised access to a car and driving it away. By making a smartphone the actual car key, this would simply become the target of theft instead. Although, if the smartphone-to-car communication includes, as is often so, a 'Where is my car?' feature – in case the driver has forgotten where he or she parked – this would be a 'car key' that could direct the thief to his target. It will, surely, often be easier to steal a 'phone while its owner is away from home than it is to house-break, in order to steal a key.
Continental's smartphone access system, though, claims to be more, rather than less, secure than a conventional key. For a start, it utilises the NFC interface, which
is so short range as to make interception of the data exchange effectively impossible. And it goes further, in that the digital data key within the car that permits entry and operation – and which is also stored in encrypted form in the 'phone's SIM card – can be changed remotely. Once this is done, in response to the owner reporting a smartphone or car missing, the stolen smartphone will no longer allow the car door to be opened or the engine started.
While this is clearly a scant deterrent to so-called joyriders, whose purpose is to make one irresponsible and probably destructive journey, it certainly would be a game-changer for car thieves – both big time and small time – who intend to sell the vehicle on.
This material is protected by A D Media copyright
See Terms and Conditions.
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies
contact the sales team.