Biometric Vehicle Access is Only a Matter of Time

by Kayla Matthews

Biometrics Begin Where Keys End

Insert the key of your mid-80’s Ford Bronco into the door of another Bronco of the same era, and there’s a serious chance it might just turn over and grant you access. That’s not a comforting thing to know if you’re the owner of a mid-80s Bronco. 

Car security has improved quite a bit since the 80s. Ford pioneered the endearing but short-lived number pad. The Germans brought us laser-cut keys, and today’s cars forego keys entirely. Key or not, though, if a bad guy manages to abscond with your access mechanism, they can take your ride for a test drive any time they want — a permanent test drive.

Biometrics are mainstream technology today. Fingerprint recognition is already built into common smartphones. Now, some even have facial recognition capabilities, and iris scanning is a sweetheart of the sci-fi world that is actually beginning to see use in real life.

However, the vehicles we pay tens of thousands of dollars for are lagging behind cellular phones in the access control department. Soon, though, cars will feature integrated biometrics technologies, and they will do a great deal more than just making sure it’s you tugging on the door handle.

Expect one in three cars to feature integrated biometrics by 2025. In addition to recognizing your unique characteristics on entry, biometric features will improve your driving experience and make you safer. There’s even the possibility that your car could recognize an attempt to drive drunk and stop you. While it might frustrate risky drivers, such a feature would make the road a safer place overall.

Cars That Work With you

The Chrysler Portal concept car wants you to be as comfortable as possible behind the wheel. When you get in, sensors in the car’s seat recognize the shape of your body and adjust to your optimal settings. The Portal can even suggest where you want to go based on your past behavior.

Ford has demonstrated that it wants to be seen as a cutting-edge transportation company, not just an automaker. Their use of materials like aluminum in the F-150 strategically improves fuel efficiency and lowers CO2 emissions, and what’s coming in the future is even more impressive.

Sensors in the steering wheel and seatbelt of next-generation Ford vehicles will be able to track driver emotion and stress levels. When your car recognizes that you’re feeling the effects of chaotic traffic, it can put your phone in “do not disturb” mode. Just make sure your boss knows about the high-tech new ride you bought that’s keeping you off those early-morning teleconferences.

Biometric technology doesn’t just have to work for drivers, either. It can be used to make the experience of riding in a car more pleasant for passengers. BMW has already deployed an example of this in their current top-of-the-line seven series, using a system called Nuance Dragon Drive.

Dragon Drive is a voice command system developed by Nuance Communications that can differentiate between the voices of different people in the car. For example, if the driver requests that Dragon play their favorite songs, Dragon Drive will access music from their phone, but if someone in the back seat makes the request, the system is smart enough to distinguish between the two and play music from the passenger’s phone. BMW isn’t the only company using Nuance technology. Honda, Ford, Toyota and others have already adopted the high-tech system, which combines biometrics with a form of a virtual assistant. Just like the one on your smartphone, it can make changes to your schedule and send short messages, among other things.

Audi drivers with long commutes will be happy to learn about the launch of “Traffic Jam Pilot,” a system expected to come standard on the next-generation A8. “Pilot” can execute completely autonomous driving up to 60mph, but it requires that you remain alert.  Cameras in the car monitor driver behavior. Should driver focus veer from the road too long, the car will instruct you to resume control in three phases. Initial warnings come through the infotainment system, but doze off, and the A8 can find an open spot in traffic to jolt you awake with aggressive braking.

Key Concerns

There’s a lot to look forward to with these new technologies around the corner, but there are key concerns when it comes to biometrics.

Cars that use biometric data need to record that data to act on it. That means all of your personal information is stored somewhere within your car’s system — either within a secure element in the vehicle, or potentially transmitted back to manufacturer servers. Should a hacker access your connected car, and the biometric data not be properly protected or encrypted, you could be in some trouble.

In worst-case scenarios, the stolen data could be used to override other biometric security devices that don’t have sufficient liveness-detection (like older smartphones) or used as a means of gaining access to even more personal information. With autonomous cars relying heavily on network technology, the threat of data compromise is real, biometric and otherwise.

Security is going to be an issue with cars of the future no matter what, but don’t expect manufacturers to slam on the breaks when it comes to biometrics. There are ways to make the transmission of personal information more secure — for example, by encrypting biometric data before it leaves your car or ensuring that biometrics used for authentication purposes only happens within a secure enclave. Indeed, as liveness detection technology becomes more prolific, even compromised biometric data will become a non-threat.

The level of integration these types of systems will deliver is unprecedented. We are truly witnessing a revolution in the driving experience. The cars of 20 years from now will likely feel much different than even a brand-new car today.

Kayla Matthews is a health IT and technology writer whose work has appeared on Motherboard, VentureBeat, MakeUseOf and BioMed Central. To read more posts from Kayla, check out her blog.