Outlook 2020 - Cutting-edge technologies are driving new levels of personalisation in automobiles

4 mins read

Since the late 1990s, passive access has allowed drivers to unlock car doors and passive start has enabled them to start the car by pushing a button, without removing the keyfob from their pocket, purse, or backpack.

Eventually, people will be able to securely unlock and start their car and activate a multitude of personalised features by using their fingerprint or smartphone.

The familiarity of fingerprint recognition in the smartphone has led automotive makers to evaluate the technology for passenger cars. Fingerprint recognition is commonly thought of as a biological key, however, the most-popular use case being considered for automotive platforms today – personalisation – takes advantage of the fingerprint sensor’s convenience more than its security.

To understand the security limitations of fingerprint recognition in vehicles, it is worth comparing the car to a smartphone. Outside the home or office, a smartphone is nearly always kept with the user. This means that theft of a phone is difficult. The main security risk is to private data held on the phone, which could be compromised if the phone were to be lost or stolen. But service providers and phone manufacturers provide methods for disabling a lost or stolen phone remotely.

When it comes to smartphones, users accept a small risk of false acceptance, when someone other than the owner touches the fingerprint sensor and has a false fingerprint match. The use case for biometric authentication in the car’s locking system or its ignition needs to be failproof.

To combat the risk of theft, car manufacturers can design vehicle access controls to be very difficult to attack. New biometric technologies can supplement the security offered by conventional access control devices such as wireless key fobs, providing a form of multi-factor authentication. For vehicle access, facial recognition is expected to play a role in the future alongside fingerprint recognition: the presence of the keyfob, the visual ID of the owner, and a fingerprint sensor in the Start button can combine to protect the vehicle from unauthorised use.

Press to Configure
Fingerprint authentication offers significant opportunities for personalisation in the car.

Each driver has different preferences for settings. Some care about driving dynamics, such as the suspension and the speed/fuel economy trade-off. Others focus on comfort, including the height of the driver’s seat, the position of the steering wheel, and the cabin temperature.
For others, infotainment is crucial – the content shown on the centre information display, the choice of radio stations or other audio content, the equalizer settings and so on. A single press on a fingerprint-powered ‘Personalize Settings’ button could adjust all of these features instantly for any number of authorized users of the vehicle.

The use of a button for this function has important benefits. Clearly there are other ways of identifying the user, such as face recognition or iris recognition. These technologies operate automatically. A button, however, implies consent on the user’s part: the user chooses to assert his or her preference by pressing a fingerprint sensor.

Why does this matter? Imagine that a mother is driving and her teenage child is in the front passenger seat. A face recognition camera could automatically identify the mother and change all the settings to her preferences. Her child might have different music and climate control preferences, however. Fingerprint sensor buttons enable the occupants of the car to choose whose preferences are applied.
The action of pressing a button to signal intent and consent will also be of benefit when validating in-car payments, for instance parking fees or road-use tolls, since it prevents the risk that a driver could claim that a payment was debited without her or his consent.

Phone-as-a-Key (PaaK) technology is just beginning to appear in high-end vehicles. At a basic level, the phone replaces the key fob for entry and starting a vehicle. However, using a smart phone also enables automotive OEMs to implement an incredible new range of features in vehicles.

Current passive keyless systems require drivers to walk up and touch the door handle to gain access. These systems use proprietary 315/433MHz RF systems triggered by a low-frequency 125kHz system that only operates in close proximity to the car--within 1-2 meters.
When the phone is your key, cars will have the ability to track drivers approaching and departing a car, with a range in excess of 20 meters.

This allows for new user experiences as the car can prepare itself to do various things with the knowledge that the driver is approaching the car. Some examples include turning on welcome lighting in the dark as the driver walks up to the car, or soft-starting systems that have long boot-up times so they are available for instant use. Imagine walking up to a car with your phone in your pocket, and the car unlocks when you reach it, the infotainment head unit has already powered up and paired with your phone, the podcast you were listening to instantly transfers over to the car’s audio system, your destination is transferred from your phone and the fastest route is mapped well before you push the button to start the car.

Phone-as-a-Key is essentially a digital key that can be “managed.” Imagine you want to let your friend or your teenager use your car. Digital Keys can be transferred from a phone app to someone else. At the same time, you’ll be able to set up a geofence that sends you an alert if the car doesn’t go to the library but heads down to the beach instead. You’ll be able to set limits for speed and time of use (i.e., no driving after midnight) as well. You’ll also be able to ensure you won’t be stuck with an empty tank in the morning; just set an alarm to go off when the car is within a few miles of home to remind your young driver to fill the tank before returning home.

PaaK technology also has tremendous commercial applications for rental car companies. When you need a car at the airport, you could browse the available selection in a phone app, make your choice, complete payment, and then your phone is all you need to gain access to the car. In this way, the renting process can be completely automated.

These same phone apps can also provide diagnostic information like the health of tires, fuel levels, maintenance updates etc. In addition to providing passive access to a car, PaaK can enable a more connected relationship with your vehicle that truly improve your quality of life.

Today’s fingerprint-recognition and Phone-as-a-Key technologies supports car makers’ efforts to differentiate the user experience and to create convenient and attractive ways to personalise the operation of the vehicle. As the automotive industry’s experience in the implementation of fingerprint sensing and PaaK deepens, the potential exists to extend these technologies to a wider range of applications.

Author details:

Jeff Lee, VP and Fellow, Cypress Semiconductor