The Sunday Times Driving Placeholder

Keyless wonder: how did we end up with "smart" keys for our cars?

It started with a 'plip'


The history of keyless cars and smart keys

“THE NEW Fuego. The fastest 2 door car in the world.” The advertising strapline was splashed across pages of the UK’s best selling magazines and newspapers in 1982 – but the copywriting came with a twist.

Renault’s striking looking new coupé looked fast when it was standing still but the wordplay alluded to an intriguing black plastic fob in the foreground of the picture. A dotted black line shot from the fob to the car’s door lock. The message was that the Fuego didn’t only look fast, it was the first car to be fitted with remotely operated central locking. The smart key had arrived.

Things have changed in the two decades since. Today, the smart key is, well, smarter than ever. So much so, it may not even be a key; manufacturers including BMW, General Motors, Mercedes, Tesla and Volvo offer apps which, among other things, allow drivers to lock and unlock their car.

However, whether it’s a smart key or an app, since 2011 The Sunday Times has been reporting on flaws in smart key security.

Car thieves have cracked the technology behind the smart key, to the point that insurance underwriters won’t cover some cars fitted with keyless entry and keyless start systems. According to the Metropolitan police, approximately half of all cars stolen in London are taken without the key. The situation is serious enough for the police to mail drop certain London boroughs, warning residents to take precautions.

According to the Metropolitan police, approximately half of all cars stolen in London are taken without the key

 

However, Tracker, the after-market vehicle recovery specialist that is supported by every police force in the UK, paints a bleaker picture. Of the stolen BMW X5s and Range Rover Sports fitted with its tracking device, nearly 80% were taken without a key. Andy Barrs, police liaison officer for Tracker, says that in most cases the cars are taken by organised criminal gangs that use spotters to help pinpoint their target.

You can read about the methods employed by the gangs and how to counteract them here. The question is, how did drivers come to be lumbered with the smart key? And how might it evolve to defeat the hackers?

In the early Eighties, Renault viewed the technology as a unique selling point for its coupé. The message was that this was a high tech machine, a car born of the wind tunnel and developed by boffins. Its contemporary, the Ford Capri, was crude by comparison.

“The car not only looked great, it was highly aerodynamic,” says Keith Adams, editor of Classic Car Weekly, “but underneath it was related to the rather basic Renault 18 saloon, so wasn’t that exciting to drive.”

No matter if the Fuego wasn’t all that impressive underneath. Adams says the remote central locking system was a key element to making the Fuego seem “frightfully advanced” in the early ‘80s. “It helped glamorise the car,” he adds.

Renault had stolen a march on its competitors, and it had a Frenchman to thank. Paul Lipschutz invented the technology behind the system, and numerous other car security products, for his employer, Niemens, a supplier of security components to the car industry. Lipschultz even leant his name to the earliest example of a smart key, which became known as a ‘plip’ or ‘plipper’.

In 1982, Lipschultz’s plipper was seen as the height of technology. It also revealed an interesting side to the psychology of locking the car. Drivers were said to find it reassuring to listen to the click of the door locks and see the flash from the indicator lights as they turned away from one of their most prized possessions.

In 1982, Lipschultz’s “plipper” was seen as the height of technology. Drivers were said to find it reassuring to listen to the click of the door locks and see the flash from the indicator lights

Patented in 1981 after successful submission in 1979, it worked using a “coded pulse signal generator and battery-powered infra-red radiation emitter” – the key fob part used by the driver – along with a receiver which could detect the infra-red pulses and emitted coded pulses identical to those from the fob. Electrically actuated door locks, another Lipschultz patent, completed the invention in 1982, and the Fuego’s advertising campaign soon shouted about this smart key innovation.

fuego advert

Drivers liked the convenience of remote central locking. But the infra-red based system could be temperamental. Anyone who has owned a car fitted with such a plip will recognise the “plip dance,” where the driver shuffles around the vehicle, aiming the transponder at the receiver in the vain hope that the two would communicate, do as they’re told and lock or unlock the car’s doors.

By 1993, infra-red technology was phased out by radio controlled security systems, and in 1995 a European frequency was standardised by law. It should have done away with the plip dance, but the adoption of radio-controlled systems did not go entirely smoothly.

The AA and RAC reported that by the end of 1996, of the two million cars sold in Britain with radio-based central locking and alarm systems, an estimated 5% (100,000) of drivers were locked out of, or unable to lock, their car.

By the end of 1996, of the two million cars sold in Britain with radio-based central locking and alarm systems, an estimated 5% (100,000) of drivers were locked out of, or unable to lock, their car.

The radio key’s signal could be blocked from the car’s receiver unit by stronger signals. This was a problem, given one of the primary users of the radio frequency was the Ministry of Defence.

Car thieves were quick to react to the technology. Electronic signal jammers were used to prevent the car from locking or to ‘grab’ the code; once drivers were out of sight, thieves could help themselves to valuables or, worse, the car.

Fighting back, the industry introduced improvements such as rolling codes and mechanical ignition keys fitted with electronic, coded transponder chips. The passive chip, which didn’t require battery power, was read when the key was turned in the ignition. Without the chip being present, an immobiliser system would prevent the engine from being started.

It took Mercedes-Benz, and its supplier Siemens, to take the smart key to the next level of convenience for drivers. In 1998, Mercedes launched the fourth generation of its flagship, the S-class luxury saloon. It was the first car fitted with a proximity key, which did away with fumbling around for a key. Called Keyless Go, drivers simply walked up to their car, pulled the door open, sat behind the wheel and pressed a button on the dashboard to start the engine.

Mercedes S-Class W220

“We introduced the smart key not only to enhance security – the key itself is coded to the car via an upload link to Stuttgart and can only be programmed when the car is physically present at a Mercedes-Benz dealer – but also to enhance convenience,” a Mercedes spokesman told Driving.

The convenience was not just the hands-free action of getting into the car and starting the engine via a button. By 2002, when it was first offered to UK drivers, Mercedes’ smart key could store the desired position of the driver’s seat and steering wheel and adjust it automatically if someone else had been driving.


Search for and buy a used Mercedes S-class on driving.co.uk


Soon, smart keys were fitted to cars of all shapes and sizes, from a humble Fiesta to a luxurious Bentley. Amid concerns over their security, in 2005 Thatcham, the organisation responsible for car security in the UK, introduced a standard for keyless entry, requiring the device to be inoperable at a distance of more than 10cm from the vehicle. The change came after it was found that some cars could be opened and driven away whilst the driver was, for example, queuing to pay for their petrol.

It didn’t take long for car thieves to catch up with Thatcham’s changes to insurance standards. In 2011, researchers at ETH University in Zurich Switzerland, revealed flaws in keyless technology which allowed them to fool smart keys into thinking they were next to a vehicle, triggering it to instruct the car to open the doors. With a fob range of as much as 100 yards, it was a serious weakness.

It has been used – extensively – along with a variety of other techniques that circumvent the security of smart key systems. Worse still, once thieves gain access to a car – be it by stealth or simply by smashing a window – it is easy for them to hack into the car’s computer diagnostic port, using cheap, £10 programming gadgets that create a new key from a blank fob.

Mike Briggs from Thatcham told Driving that this is a result of EU Block Exemption Regulation, which says that independent garages and not just franchised dealers must be allowed access to the car’s onboard computer so they can service the vehicle.

What next for the smart key in the fight against crime? Thatcham says it introduced changes to the testing procedure for smart key systems in early 2014, which are beginning to take effect on new cars. “We typically give manufacturers a lead time of 12 months to introduce changes before we begin to assess cars against the tougher security standards, says Briggs.

“I doubt we’ll go back to basic keys. Legitimate locksmiths can overcome any mechanical car lock you present them with”

Will we go back to a mechanical key? “I very much doubt that,” says Andy Barr, of Tracker. “Legitimate locksmiths can overcome any mechanical car lock you present them with; if they can, you can bet that the criminals can.”

Do we still need a key, then? Chris Longmore, Managing Director of Drive Design, a car design consultancy, suggests that the millennial generation are more attached to their smartphone than a car. “They are the Facebook generation, who find their smartphone indispensable. For them, it has greater status than a car key. So why keep the key? Why not just have an app?”

Longmore adds that it has always been the dream of designers to do away with door handles. “So far, the closest we’ve come to that is with a handful of cars from Aston Martin, Jaguar, Mazda and Tesla which feature pop-out door handles.”

Johan Maresch is in charge of IT Innovation at Volvo. “If we look far ahead, perhaps we’ll have an eye scanner that would identify you [the driver] and there wouldn’t be a mobile or any other physical device.”

Volvo On Call smartphone app

This could only happen if peoples’ habits change, says Maresch. “There is brand awareness to consider – are drivers happy to do away with a key completely?” He adds that habits are already changing, such as switching from a mechanical key to a smart key, or from carrying cash to paying with debit cards, contactless cards and new forms of mobile payment.

Mike Briggs, of Thatcham, says that entry to cars via biometric scanning or fingerprint recognition are not the best route to go down as these security systems, in general, are not favoured by the Government or the security industry. “If you think about it, it can only lead to one thing. Organised criminals are ruthless; if they have to take someone by force in order to get the car they want, they will.”

Vehicle theft is falling in the UK. In the period 2002-2003, nearly 320,000 cars were stolen; from October 2012 to September 2013, it had dropped to just under 77,000 cars

The good news is, vehicle theft is falling in the UK. In the period 2002-2003, nearly 320,000 cars were stolen; from October 2012 to September 2013, it had dropped to just under 77,000 cars. The bad news? Drivers who own the type of car that tends to be stolen to order (i.e. high value vehicles) could be a target.

For the foreseeable future, improvements to the smart key will be concentrated on protecting the car’s onboard vehicle diagnostics port. Drivers who have concerns about the car they already own should consider fitting an after-market security device, such as a steering lock, and a tracker device, which you can find on Thatcham’s website.

In the meantime, do sleep well, car owners… don’t have nightmares.