A face scanner scans the face of a man in the cockpit of a car.

Automotive Biometrics: Your Iris Will Start Your Car

Your face is scanned when you check in for a flight, Facebook uses biometric facial recognition for tagging, and smartphones recognize their users from their fingertips – biometric methods are everywhere these days. The technology is also appearing more and more in cars.

Biometrics is booming. Authorities and companies began gathering and evaluating millions of pieces of data about our bodies long ago. Our vocal cords, eyes, retina, the palms of the hands, the shape of the skull, and fingerprints are so unique to each human being that they are increasingly replacing passwords and keys when it comes to identifying and authenticating users. The advantages are that the body’s own data can never be lost, because it is with us all the time. And it is impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to copy biometric data. Fingerprints have a number of unique characteristics, such as breaks and irregularities in the ridges and furrows. The exact timbre, quality and pitch of a voice are also as unique as a fingerprint.

Not all the technologies are mature by any means. Every now and again, reports appear about error rates or systems that can be hacked. For example, criminals can use fake fingers made of plastic or synthetic fingertips to assume someone else’s identity. Fingerprint scanners therefore also check additional features such as the skin’s electrical resistance, or temperature or pulse using infrared sensors. And facial recognition, for instance, repeatedly requires up-to-date reference images. This is because people’s faces change as they get older – or due to disease. Alongside the technical aspects, greater consumer confidence in the technology is also needed. Many people are still skeptical about the collection and use of biometric data. However, it is gradually spreading, along with the classical security features in consumer electronics and in building and vehicle technology.

Keyless entry

No more crowbars… Not only cars are becoming ever more digital – so are the thieves. One of the reasons for this is keyless entry. At the end of 2019, the National Situation Report published by the German Federal Criminal Police Office listed “keyless” access systems as one of the main ways that tech-savvy crooks were getting into vehicles. The German Insurance Association (GDV) also believes that the cases of “theft by radio” have been rising for years. In these relay attacks, a technical device is used to intercept the car’s radio waves and effectively extend their range. A second device is positioned near the car key and simply retransmits the signal. This activates the key, which responds with a signal to unlock the doors. This in turn is relayed to the car, telling it that the driver is standing right beside it. The thieves are especially keen on SUVs and luxury sedans. Many of the vehicles are taken to other countries by highly professional gangs, and are stripped for individual parts. The thieves most often want to get their hands on digital instrument clusters, displays and GPS devices, airbags, engines, gearboxes and parts of the chassis. In vehicles with alternative powertrains it is primarily the batteries that the crooks want. There are many opportunities for car thieves: any parking lot, hotel reception or gas station cash desk.

Fingerprint scanner on the steering wheel of a car
Hyundai’s smart fingerprint technology – Picture: Hyundai Motor

Fingerprint replaces smart key

The security loopholes in keyless systems have been known for a long time. Scientists at the Department for Information Technology at the ETH Zurich first discovered the weaknesses in 2010. Since 2016 the German ADAC automobile club has listed all the vehicles whose keyless entry systems could be tricked. The table now contains over 350 models. OEMs and suppliers are working intensively on new methods – including ones with biometric elements. Continental is a pioneer in this area. The group is developing biometric access with two-factor authentication. As before, the engine will not start unless a valid key is present inside the vehicle. But the driver cannot set off until additional authentication has been carried out by a fingerprint sensor. Hyundai is planning that the driver’s fingerprint will replace the car key for its models. The driver has to place a finger on the scanner in the door handle in order to unlock the vehicle. The engine will still be started using the start button, but now it too is equipped with a fingerprint sensor. The probability of the technology erroneously recognizing another person’s fingerprint as that of the owner is around 1 in 50,000. However, to begin with the function will be available only in the US and some Asian countries.

Eyes right and drive off

The supplier Osram Opto Semiconductors has developed an iris scanner for vehicles. Just like a fingerprint, a human iris has its own set of unique features. The system scans the iris using invisible infrared light and a camera captures an image of the structure of the iris. The image is analyzed and then the vehicle’s immobilizer can be deactivated. Another option is 2-D facial recognition. This uses an infrared light source to illuminate the whole face, while a camera records an image which is then analyzed. If the data match – such as width of the mouth, length of the nose, or the distance between the eyes – the vehicle’s central locking is deactivated. The technology is already being used in smartphones and tablets to unlock the device without a password. The company IAV has developed a similar system with a 3-D face scanner that is not fooled by modifiable characteristics like eyeglasses, beards or make-up. The system even recognizes whether a seat is occupied by a human being or a parcel. The vehicle will only start if the data check comes back with a positive result.

The face of a car driver is scanned.
JLR Animation by Jaguar Land Rover – Picture: Jaguar Land Rover

It’s the way you look

Biometric driver identification can also be used to control individual settings in the vehicle. This kind of additional personalization enhances not only security but also comfort and wellbeing in particular. Hyundai’s fingerprint recognition can adjust features such as seat position, air conditioning and infotainment when the driver climbs into the car. Jaguar Land Rover is testing a system for monitoring the occupants’ mood. A camera on the steering wheel and biometric sensors monitor the driver’s facial expression. The system continually analyzes it and adjusts the cabin features automatically. For example, if the system detects the driver is under stress, it can change the ambient lighting to calming colors. Signs of weariness will lead to the selection of a more stimulating playlist or a reduction in the temperature inside the vehicle. The AI-based system is capable of learning and gradually adapts to individual behavior. The British auto maker is also investigating similar technology for the passengers in the back. Two cameras integrated into the headrests monitor the facial expressions of the rear passengers. If they get drowsy, the system can dim the lights, tint the windows, or turn up the seat heating. Now the only thing missing is surround-sound to play a lullaby…