By on August 2, 2018

1989 Mercury Sable in Colorado junkyard, door lock keyboard - © 2016 Murilee Martin / The Truth About Cars

That’s one of the unspoken questions contained in Automotive News‘ report on automotive supplier Continental’s new biometric authentication technology. Passwords are the scourge of the modern age, it’s true, and having a secure way of locking and unlocking a sensitive…anything…is preferable to trying to remember that damn combination of letters and numbers.

Computer files. Your phone. The entrance to sterile, high-security office buildings. These are all good candidates for facial recognition technology, fingerprint and retina scans, or voice recognition. But your car? It’s true that using this technology — in addition to conventional keys and fobs — would add an extra layer of defence, improving your vehicle’s chances of remaining unmolested. But at what cost?

Much like Elon Musk’s brilliant idea to “conveniently” centralize all minor vehicle functions in a central infotainment interface (which compelled owners to take their eyes off the road to dick around with menus just to roll down windows and adjust dash vents), technology doesn’t always make our lives easier.

Adding extra steps rarely makes things easier. It also adds an extra layer of uncertainty, as a door with two locks now has an extra lock that could break.

But Continental really wants to market its technology to the auto industry, going as far as engaging execs and journos at this week’s CAR Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Michigan. The company’s tech would allow vehicle owners to unlock and start their car with any combination of voice command, face, or fingerprint recognition. It’s not a new concept, of course. Ford, for example, just patented a system for voice-activated seats. And it’s a logical path to go from, say, a keypad to a thumb scanner.

In a vehicle outfitted with facial recognition, for example, a camera located in the side-view mirror would scan the owner’s face before allowing them to unlock the door. Inside, an infrared camera would peer through the darkness for facial match before allowing the ignition to do its stuff.

If you’re the type who constantly worries about your car turning up missing from its parking spot (or your teen getting their hands on your keys), this might be just the ticket. Who are we to say there shouldn’t be choice in all things?

Besides just stealing keys and fobs, crafty thieves have been known to “steal” a fob’s unlocking signal to pilfer cars. So, with two out of the three biometric security measures, stealing the key or fob (or signal) would prove worthless. The third measure would require the thief to remove at least one of your fingers before making off with the car.

Not all thieves are willing to go that far in pursuit of a vehicle. Still, there’s many scenarios where we could see such a security system falling victim to weather, software gremlins, etc, rendering the car — and your fob — useless, at least until you’ve gone through other channels to gain access. Where and when that might happen could prove inconvenient — even dangerous.

Depending on your view of the modern world, your take might be more or less cynical than this author’s.

[Image: © 2016 Murilee Martin / TTAC]

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40 Comments on “At What Point Do We Want Our Cars to Be Less Like Our Phones?...”


  • avatar
    ernest

    I think the first time someone encounters a dead battery along with facial recognition software, they’ll rethink how convenient this actually is. Bonus points if it happens in the Columbia Gorge, the Coast, or during a significant weather event.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    Gah I don’t know. It took me until now to start coming around on push button start but that’s because I carry my keys on a carabiner (car keys separate from a cluster of school keys) and it would be convenient to not have to fiddle with the carabiner before or after sitting down in the vehicle at the end of a long day.

    I figure it will take me another decade or so to come around to anything beyond that (finger print, facial recognition, eyeball scan)

    • 0 avatar
      ernest

      What I really miss is the keypad on my old Marquis. Never lose the keys on a hike or at the beach- just toss ’em in the glovebox and carry on.

      • 0 avatar
        PrincipalDan

        Can you still get the touch pad on Ford products? (I’m sure ScoutDude will chime in if no one else knows)

        I’ve heard that every time Ford proposed axing the keypad their customers would send angry letters containing language that was usually reserved for cussing out politicians.

        • 0 avatar
          ernest

          Yep- son’s new pickup has it.
          The very first car I owned with “keyless entry,” a ’83 T-Bird.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          Yes. I believe it’s offered on most of the cars. I’m not sure about the compact (Focus, Escape, C-Max) and subcompact stuff (Fiesta, EcoSport). And I know the Mustang doesn’t have it.

          But almost everything else does. Starting with the new-for-2009 Lincoln MKS, Ford’s been hiding the keypad in the B-pillar trim. You touch it and the numbers light up in red. The exception to this is the trucks, because people with gloved fingers might need to use the keypad. They still have traditional rubber-button setups.

          I’ve also seen dealer add-on key pads for other manufacturers, which you could stick anywhere, such as inside the filler door. I distinctly remember Nissan having one for the Titan. My understanding of those is that they run on the same transponder system as the key fob, but you have to punch in the right code for it to tell the car to unlock. Ford’s, on the other hand, are surely hard-wired into the car’s security system, making them a bit more secure.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            It has been available on Escapes since sometime in the last generation but never was available on the C-Max, Focus or Fiesta other than the add on version which is nothing more than a combination lock fob with double stick tape. That stick on one will work with the more recent models that have a remote.

            Hopefully they will move the cars back to the actual buttons instead of the hidden touch sensors. Having had most of the different versions of the good old fashioned rubber buttons I’m not liking the touch panel on my recently acquired MKZ, too many times it takes more than one try.

            Not only have they expanded availability that have added additional functionality. You can now program more than one additional code and now that code can be tied to the memory settings like the fob at least with Sync 2 or 3.

            On the other hand they take away the ability to open the trunk with the key pad on cars with the power trunk.

        • 0 avatar
          Art Vandelay

          Yep. I got an XLT model F150 vs an XL because of the keypad. I was still in the Army and on multiple occasions I lost my keys during PT. With the keypad I just threw em in the console and locked it up.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        GM had a solution for this for decades. One oval key for the doors and a rectangular key for the ignition.

        • 0 avatar
          Kyree S. Williams

          Yes. We had a ’64 Impala and a ’73 C10 Custom; both had the dual-key setup. I believe our last GM car with that arrangement was a ’92 Eighty-Eight.

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        Yep. I miss that on my ’14 Lincoln MKS. It had the hidden touch-based keypad in the B-pillar, so you didn’t even need to see it until you needed it. When I went to the gym, I was able to just throw my keys in the center console, then press and hold the 7-8 button to lock the car, rather than put them in the communal key bowl or have to worry about a locker and combination lock.

        That said, I’m now on my second car since the Lincoln. I’ve been able to sort of replicate locking my keys in the car by using the respective automaker’s telematics app to send the lock signal. For the ’16 Cruze, it was the OnStar App. For the ’15 Grand Cherokee, it’s Uconnect. That said, there is a latency between transmission signals, and I’d still prefer the keypad.

      • 0 avatar
        ClutchCarGo

        I, too, appreciate the keypad on my Sable, for that same reason: the ability to leave the keys in the car when going places that are not compatible with maintaining absolute control of physical objects. I’ve even left them in the car when going to a ball game where I knew I was going through a metal detector.

        The other feature of the Sable that I want on every car I drive is the dual sun visor setup. There’s a small visor behind the main visor that can block the sun in front while the main visor is positioned to the left. Perfect for those times where the twists of the road keep moving the sun from the front to my side.

        • 0 avatar
          turf3

          When I was doing a lot of running races I also had a car with a standard, no embedded chip, key. I just kept a second key (small, flat) in my wallet. Before leaving the car for the race I would put my big keyring in the glovebox, secure my car key to my shorts with a safety pin, and go run the race. A superior setup all the way around. If the battery goes dead, you use the mechanical key to open the car, open the hood, get a jump start. No problem.

      • 0 avatar
        spookiness

        The Ford keypad persists. I have seen recent Fiestas and Foci with them, but sometimes they are a wireless add-on. Not as integrated as the hardwired option but still does the job. Apparently, they work (or did work) on almost any Ford with a keyless entry fob. I have a 2010 Focus (the ugly one). I don’t think it was an official option, but I learned through message boards that it would work. The wireless keypad is a bit clunky, so I hid mine underneath the side mirror. It cost about $65 IIRC (new, eBay) and programming it is easy. I keep a condo key hidden inside my car, and long story short it has easily paid for itself 3x over in savings from locksmith fees.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @PrincipalDan, I too carry my keys on a carabiner, but unlike you the times that I have had a vehicle with a pushbutton start I have disliked it and found it to be more cumbersome and less efficient than an ignition key. Ignition keys replaced push button starts in road going cars, many decades ago, and I believe for a valid reason.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    Is car theft even a thing anymore? Today’s cars are so complicated it doesn’t even seem worth it.

    My wife’s MKX has it right IMO. Doors unlock when a key is within proximity. If it had the “kick under the bumper to open the trunk” deal it would be perfect. This is a solution to a problem that really doesn’t exist.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      When I was involved in an accident at the end of last year, the insurance company gave me a ’16 MKX. It did have the hands-free (wave foot to open) liftgate, which I thought was convenient.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      Yes, car theft is still a thing, and pretty big here in Chicago. There’s been a rash of thefts at gas stations, and I’m convinced that they are facilitated by push button start. The driver gets out and walks to the passenger side rear to fuel the car. The thief then creeps up on the driver’s side, jumps in, starts the car and takes off. This is especially possible if the driver has left the fob in a bag in the car, but I think it’s even possible when the fob is in a pocket located back by the fuel filler. Facial recognition would prevent this.

  • avatar
    Syke

    Just reading this article had my Murphy’s Law detector buzzing, clanging, ringing, and screaming simultaneously. Once the bugs are worked out, I can see where this could prove useful.

    Until the bugs are worked out . . . . historically, the 1980 Citation would be a trouble-free car by comparison.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I just recently programmed my Buick to lock a few seconds after it senses the fob is no longer in the car. Even though all I have to do otherwise is press the button on the door handle or fob, this makes me endlessly happy.

    I tried to get it to unlock as I approach, but as far as I can tell, that setting doesn’t actually seem to work.

    I’m just getting used to this new fangledness, but so far against all odds, I really like it. Not taking keys out of my pocket is a luxury I never knew I wanted.

    As far as security, thieves will find a way no matter what you do. Plus adding extra security measures will only serve to complicate things – like when your car is in the shop, how does it start if your face or fingerprint isn’t around? Or if you let someone borrow the car, I guess there’s be a setting for it, but you’d have to remember to do it. And frankly, I am probably not remembering to lock my other cars when I get out of them so remembering to set my car to valet mode, or whatever, will lead to my life getting more complicated.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      I had the same experience in a ’16 Cruze Premier. It would lock when I walked away, but I couldn’t get it to automatically unlock when I got close.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    Solution to a question no one asked.

  • avatar
    Sub-600

    I’d never had a problem with a fob until last Sunday. I came home with donuts at 7:30 A.M. and I left the fob in the car and shut the door. Big mistake, the horn started going off like crazy. I’m sure the folks on my quiet cul-de-sac weren’t thrilled, they don’t even like the sound of my exhaust. I did manage to kill a fob battery last winter, I was out shoveling in 8 degree weather for a little over an hour with the fob in my coat pocket. $1.89 for a new battery at the locksmith, installed, lol.

  • avatar
    ernest

    I have to hit a button on the Chargers FOB, but it’ll do the same thing.

  • avatar
    Fred

    I liked my old Sprite. Slide the window open, reach in and open the door. The key was used to engage the current. You pulled on a cable to engage the starter solenoid. I only had a slide rule stolen out of it when I parked it at school with the top down. I upgraded to a calculator.

  • avatar
    I_like_stuff

    1980s: You lost a key or the key bent, cost to replace $5

    2010s: You lost a key fob, cost to replace $350

    2020s: Your facial recognition system breaks, cost to replace $1500

    Yeay progress!!

  • avatar
    TW5

    What happens if you leave your phone in the car? Do the seat sensors tell the proximity sensors that no one is in the car?

    Anyway, I prefer unlocking the car and starting the car with a key. Very romantic. Kind of like cooking food over a flame, rather than taking a nutrition pill. Good for the soul.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      This. I work in a facility where cell phones are a no go. As such it sits in my car all day.

      Additionally, cars have enough built in security issues already without piggybacking all of those associated with Android on them. How is it communicating with the car? Bluetooth I assume? Yeah, i’ll pass.

      Also is it still going to communicate with my phone in 10 years? I replace my phones every 1-3 years. My cars hang out for a decade or more in some cases. 10 year old tech = Iphone 1. I’d prefer my 50k+ vehicle purchase be decoupled from my 3-700 dollar consumer electronic devices outside of infotainment.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’m reasonably happy with the key fob and push button start except for when I go to the beach. No big deal to expose a cheap copy of a metal key to salt water. It gets discolored, but still works and only costs a few dollars to replace if it gets pitted. Even if the key fob was supposed to be waterproof, I wouldn’t wade into the ocean with one in my pocket. Too expensive to replace. Being able to intentionally lock the key fob in the car with a way to unlock it is useful in that case.

  • avatar
    haroldhill

    “At what point…..”

    Now. Right Now. I’m so done. Gimme three on a tree and a choke knob I can pull out and forget to push back in. You youngsters are clearly going to he!! in a handbasket. Retinal scan? What if I blink????

  • avatar
    Pete Zaitcev

    No, we can’t. Do you even have to ask?

    Meanwhile, Volvo XC40 has all HVAC controls on the touchscreen, and that’s a fact.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    Not everyone sets it and forgets it. Depending on the time of day sometimes you have to point the vents right at you to cool down and other times it is nice to let the air flow into the cabin but not right at you. When you have multiple drivers you end up adjusting them a lot. Seems a silly gimmick. Plus, it is so much easier to just reach up and adjust them.

    • 0 avatar
      Flipper35

      I get that it works for you. Not everyone is you. I know when my wife drives I have to adjust them as a passenger. I know when my wife drives our daughter, they get adjusted by the passenger and then back.

      Our A/C is great, just some days you don’t need it blowing the same place on you, even as the driver. If you can set them to oscillate, that is different.

      The seat and mirrors make sense since they seldom need adjusting by most drivers. The air vents, not so much.

  • avatar
    IBx1

    I want not a single touchscreen or touchpad in my car. No capacitive touch buttons either. Preferably knobs for the HVAC functions. That’s it.

    The only “current” tech I would like to see as *optional* in cars would be a built-in front and rear dashcam with an easy file management system for recovering incident data.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    It is a device that has a battery lasting longer than a day. Additionally, even my freaking lowly Fiesta ST has keyless entry and start. So long as the fob is in my pocket all I do is open the door and hit the start button.

    What if Android is being Android one day and my Play Services hang, draining my battery over a 4 hour period or so?

  • avatar
    turf3

    Just to reiterate:

    As far as I am concerned, all other entry and starting methods for automobiles are INFERIOR to a mechanical key. Ideally it would not even have a chip embedded in it, just a purely mechanical lock. Use some of the money saved from these unreliable gadget doohickeys, to upgrade the lock from the el cheapo disc tumbler locks to a proper pin tumbler lock, and then leave me the heck alone.

  • avatar
    PandaBear

    I don’t mind it as long as I don’t have to pay for it.

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