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2023-11-28 9:52 AM

Driving into the Future: Unleashing Hack-Proof Digital Keys

  • Cryptographic calculations and secure elements in phones ensure hack-resistant digital keys.
  • Ultra-wideband technology adds an extra layer of security, preventing relay attacks.
  • Standardization efforts by industry consortia contribute to a secure and uniform digital key framework.
By Lethabo Ntsoane

In the ever-evolving landscape of automotive technology, the traditional car key is making way for a more futuristic counterpart—digital keys. These digital keys, capable of locking, unlocking, and starting your car using your smartphone, are paving the way for a new era of convenience and security. However, as this technology emerges, it brings forth a myriad of questions and challenges, from the choice of underlying technology to ensuring foolproof security against hackers.

The Evolution of Car Keys: A Digital Frontier

The journey from hand cranks to digital keys has been a fascinating one. We’ve witnessed the transition from physical keys to key fobs, and now, the emergence of digital keys that connect seamlessly with our smartphones. The convenience of being able to control your car with a tap on your phone is undeniable, but before this technology becomes commonplace, certain hurdles need to be overcome.

Technological Choices: NFC, UWB, or Bluetooth?

One of the pressing questions surrounding digital keys is the choice of technology. Should automakers opt for Near-Field Communication (NFC), Ultra-Wideband (UWB), or Bluetooth? Each has its advantages and challenges, and the decision becomes crucial in creating a standardized and interoperable system.

NFCShort-range communication, widely adopted in smartphones.Limited range, potential security concerns.
UWBPrecise distance measurement, secure, and resistant to relay attacks.Relatively new technology, may require hardware upgrades.
BluetoothWidely used, longer range compared to NFC.Potential security vulnerabilities, power consumption.

The Quest for Security: Unhackable Digital Keys

Ensuring the safety of digital keys is paramount in their widespread adoption. The fear of hackers exploiting vulnerabilities and gaining unauthorized access to vehicles is a significant concern. In response to this, two industry consortiums, the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) and the FiRa Consortium, have joined forces to establish standards for digital keys. These standards aim to create a secure and uniform framework across various car models and smartphone brands.

Collaborative Efforts for Standardization

The CCC, consisting of major car manufacturers, and the FiRa Consortium, including tech giants like Apple, Samsung, and Google, have embarked on a mission to formulate a plan for the future of digital keys. Standardization becomes a linchpin in achieving an ecosystem that works seamlessly across devices and vehicles.

In an exclusive interview with Daniel Knobloch, Vice President and Board Member at CCC, he shared insights into the challenges and goals of standardizing digital key technology. According to Knobloch, achieving a consensus on a single protocol among device OEMs is a significant accomplishment, likening it to other industry standards debates.

The Crucial Role of Security Measures

The digital key protocol is designed with a paramount focus on security. Critical features include cryptographic calculations and secure elements within the phone, creating an additional layer of protection. Ultra-wideband technology, employed for cryptographically secured distance measurement, adds an extra dimension of security.

Cryptographic Security: A Fortress Within Your Phone

Even in the event of a compromised phone, the secure element remains unaffected, ensuring the integrity of the digital key. The use of ultra-wideband technology enables cryptographically secured distance measurements, making it extremely challenging for hackers to manipulate or relay signals.

Security MeasuresImplementation
Cryptographic CalculationsWithin the secure element of the phone, safeguarding keys and calculations.
Secure ElementIsolated hardware piece within the phone, resistant to compromise even if the phone is hacked.
Ultra-Wideband for Distance MeasurementEnsures cryptographically secured distance measurement, making relay attacks practically impossible.

Beyond Security: The User Experience

While security is a paramount concern, the success of digital keys also hinges on a seamless and user-friendly experience. Digital keys aim to provide users with a hassle-free means of accessing and operating their vehicles.

Battery Considerations: What Happens When Your Phone Runs Out?

Addressing a common concern, Knobloch stated that phone OEMs implement various low-battery technologies, ensuring that the phone remains operational even when the battery is low. In the case of a dead phone, a fallback option involves using NFC for a limited time, allowing users to tap their phones to the handle to access the car. This ensures that, even with a drained battery, the digital key functionality remains accessible.

Backward Compatibility: Bridging the Generation Gap

One of the notable features of the digital key solution is its emphasis on backward compatibility. The technology is designed to support older phones with NFC capabilities, allowing them to function with new cars equipped with ultra-wideband support. This inclusivity ensures a smooth transition for users with varying phone models.

Industry Dynamics: Cooperation for a Common Goal

The collaboration between automotive and tech industry players is crucial to avoiding technology fragmentation. Cooperation, as seen in the efforts of CCC and the FiRa Consortium, is essential to create a sustainable and long-term-proof ecosystem for digital keys.

Ensuring a Lean Ecosystem: The Role of Industry Players

While striving for standardization, industry players aim to keep the digital key ecosystem as lean as possible. The intention is to minimize entry barriers for both car and device manufacturers, ensuring that the technology is accessible to a broad range of users.

Future Outlook: Rapid Growth and Certification

According to Knobloch, digital key technology is experiencing rapid growth, with companies actively testing hardware and vehicles in PlugFests. The industry is moving towards certifying devices, bringing together major players like Denso, Google, Samsung, Volvo, Apple, BMW, BYD, NIO, Xiaomi, Continental, Rivian, and Mercedes-Benz.

The Road Ahead: Unlocking a Digital Key Future

As digital key technology continues to advance, the automotive landscape is poised for a transformative shift. The collaborative efforts of industry players, the emphasis on security, and the commitment to user-friendly experiences signal a promising future for digital keys. While challenges persist, the strides made in standardization and security measures are steering the industry towards a new era where the traditional jingle of keys might become a nostalgic echo of the past.

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Lethabo Ntsoane

Lethabo Ntsoane holds a Bachelors Degree in Accounting from the University of South Africa. He is a Financial Product commentator at Rateweb. He is an expect financial product analyst with years of experience in reviewing products and offering commentary. Lethabo majors in financial news, reviews and financial tips. He can be contacted: Email: lethabo@rateweb.co.za Twitter: @NtsoaneLethabo