Categories: Security

Digital Car Keys are Convenient, But Not For Thieves

Digital Car Key

The first automobile in history hit the roads on New Year’s Eve of 1879. Developed by the German engineer Carl Benz, they sported details like an automatic intake slide, a controlled exhaust valve, and a high-voltage electrical vibrator ignition with a spark plug. However, they lacked an essential element that many modern automobiles have: Car keys.

“Many people feel as if digital access to their cars would make them more vulnerable to theft or other crimes, compared to a traditional key. However, the opposite is true!”

Even though it might seem an unfathomable idea for today’s car owners, it wasn’t until the early 20th century automobiles started having locks and keys. While the first car keys were simple cylinder locks, they evolved parallel with the digitization and access technologies.

However, stealing a car with a traditional lock and key, as well as the earlier generations of remote keys, can be shockingly easy. Statistics on car theft show that most of the vehicles targeted by criminal activity are those with keys or fobs. Most common auto theft methods are developed to mechanically break into a car.

But another method known as a relay attack allows criminals to hack car by spoofing the presence of a key by amplifying a signal to – and from a remote, authorized key, and car respectively via inexpensive radio tools.

Fast forward to 2020, and many car manufacturers are well on their ways to solve the security vulnerabilities of existing hands-free access control, particularly by integrating secure proximity verification using Ultrawide-Band (UWB) technologies. Implementing UWB method of access dramatically enhances comfort and provides the highest level of security for all advanced access functions compared to earlier models.

How Do Car Locks Work With UWB?

Blade, Weapon, Scissors, car key

UWB is a technology that works similar to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but it has the advantage of enabling centimeter precise and provably secure distance measurement for proximity verification and localization. According to the UWB Alliance, a non-profit organization, it’s a unique radio technology that can use extremely low energy levels for short-range, high-bandwidth pulse transmission over a large portion of the radio spectrum.

Although UWB has many applications in fields like medical, public safety, and data communication, its potential to improve the security and convenience of access control is particularly striking.

Most recently, the automobile industry – which has traditionally been a driver of innovation – started to incorporate UWB technology to provide advanced hands-free and secure access. Car manufacturing giants like Volkswagen and BMW already announced their new models that feature UWB-enabled access.

Once a car and a mobile device (e.g., smart phone or smart watch), that supports UWB, verifies the mutual proximity and precise location around and in the car, the car owner will have hands-free and seamless access to his car, as well as start the car or open the trunk without the need of any additional interaction, but with the highest security guaranteed. This eliminates the need of looking for the key fob or phone and presenting it at particular locations in order to get access.

As many organizational aspects of one’s life – such as the finances, schedules, tickets, or keys – get concentrated into smartphones, a UWB-enabled digital key means one less bulky item to clutter the daily lives.

Is It Easy to Hack Cars with UWB Access?

In contrast to the ease of stealing a car with a mechanical key, or traditional remote (RKE) or passive remote key (PEPS), it’s getting increasingly difficult to hack or steal cars that tap into modern digital access technologies. As technologies to access cars have been developed, there has been a steady decline in the rates of car theft. UWB galvanizes the security even further.

“There are many misconceptions about security and digital access,” says Dr. Boris Danev, Co-Founder and CEO of 3db Access, a firm that develops integrated UWB solutions for secure contactless access control for the automotive and consumer industries.

Many people feel as if digital access to their cars would make them more vulnerable to theft or other crimes, compared to a traditional key. However, the opposite is true!

Dr. Boris Danev, Co-Founder and CEO of 3db Access

When UWB becomes a part of the picture, the likelihood of car theft is even slimmer, Dr. Danev explains. “No method of access can give a full guarantee to keep the thieves at bay. However, UWB-based access makes cars as secure as it’s possible with current technologies.”

Consumers to Embrace Keyless Security

Cell Phone, Phone, Electronics, Digital Car Key

Since keys have been invented some 6,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt and Babylon, people worldwide associated keys with a sense of ownership and security. However, Dr. Danev believes that the power of UWB is poised to challenge ingrained consumer habits.

He adds, “UWB provides more comfort for drivers and guarantees highest theft protection for their vehicles. It’s easier than you imagine to get used to better things.”

Dr. Andreas Haeberli

Dr. Andreas Haeberli

Andreas is co-CEO and co-Founder of PhenoSign. He was the Chief Technology Officer of the dormakaba Group for almost 20 years. He is a Member of the Board at 3db Access AG and of the public listed companies Komax and Kardex. He is part of the Industrial Advisory Board for Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH and a member of the Research Committee of Swissmem.