Sunday, May 07, 2006

Keyless Entry: Convenient for Drivers, Thieves Alike

Car thieves have never needed the actual car keys to steal your car. They just needed to be more personally involved in the process. You might call their trade the original form of keyless entry.

In recent years, a trend towards keyless radio-frequency-based entry/security systems has raised the bar for driver convenience. Right now, it's generally being seen as a standard or optional feature on luxury autos, though similar systems (such as Clifford's Auto Immobilizer, which I had installed on two previous cars of mine) have been available to regular consumers for quite a while via the aftermarket.

The aftermarket units are basic. The keychain transponder communicates with the hidden unit installed in the car when it is within proximity. Once the "handshake" takes place, the immoilizer then releases the locks it put on a critical system (fuel, ignition, etc), allowing the driver actually start the car when he or she turns the key.

The new factory systems like Lexus' SmartAccess or Mercedes' KEYLESS-GO take this to the next level. Again proximity-based, these systems allow the car to detect when the transponder, packaged in a keyfob or keycard, comes close to the vehicle. Upon matching the code, the car will automatically unlock the doors and disable the security system, putting the car in a ready-to-drive state. The driver never needs to pull out the fob, and can then start the car by simply pressing the engine start/stop button that is becoming more and more prevalent in different new models.

Theoretically, these systems make the car very difficult to steal since they use rolling codes, which generate millions upon millions of potential valid "unlock" signals.

Thieves, ever adaptable, are finding new ways to beat these systems. CNET reported yesterday that professional car thieves are now using the same technology to beat the automakers. They tell the story of a young Czech thief who was able to steal high-end cars equipped with the keyless packages by using a laptop and an RFID reader, with which he was able to steal, store, and reuse the codes. The article speculates that the recent thefts of David Beckham's BMW X5s were pulled off in this manner.

CNET also details how things could be made better if only a higher grade of encryption were used. Current systems apparently use 40-bit encryption. A move to 128-bit would help, but does not appear to be on the horizon right now.

The keyless systems are only going to gain traction in the marketplace as more people try them. I have used the Lexus SmartAccess system on the IS250, and it's fantastic. The convenience it provides the driver with is both welcome and impressive. It's also standard equipment, so there's no alternative for potential customers who are leery of the potential security implications.

If theft of similarly-equipped cars becomes a significant problem, the market will make the necessary adjustments to resolve it. The automakers would lose face otherwise.

In the meantime, it's important to remember one thing, and it applies whether you drive a car with an old-fashioned metal key or a new-fangled keyless RF system:

If a thief wants your car, he's going to get it. Period.

CNET: Gone in 60 seconds--the high-tech version
Jalopnik: Blag It Like Beckham
Autoblog: Celebrity shocker: Beckham's Bimmer boosted - again!
Mercedes-Benz: KEYLESS-GO demo
Lexus: SmartAccess

additional Background:
MSN Autos: Driving Without Car Keys

Photo: Mercedes-Benz KEYLESS-GO system in SL roadster. Courtesy of DaimlerChrysler.