Sunday, August 9, 2015

Who's In Your Car at Night?

It was only a matter of time before car thieves traded in their crowbars for computer classes. If you follow automotive news, you probably know that Chrysler-Fiat is recalling more than 1.4M Jeeps with UConnect. If you don't follow automotive news: Fiat owns Chrysler, Chrysler makes Jeeps, and Italians still can't make a decent car.

If you own a new Jeep, get ready to gear up. Wired recently showed how hackers could gain control of your radio, climate control, and even bring your car to a slow halt. 

It's scary, but it's not unexpected. As your car becomes more and more of a computer, it becomes more and more prone to the demons of technology. Until now, no car's onboard computer system has been so connected to your diving experience to allow it to be hijacked. And it's probably good that it happened with UConnect, because apparently the ability to remotely hijack a car hasn't yet been a top concern despite warnings. 

While hackers can stall your new Jeep, they can't put you in an real danger. If this hadn't been shown, that might have not been the case in the future. Your networked computer is one thing. When you get a virus, it's an annoyance. When you're hacked, it can be an embarrassment. But a plagued laptop isn't going to disable your breaks or steer you into the Grand Canyon. 

Despite obvious headaches for Chrysler-Fiat, the lessons learned are good for every carmaker from Detroit to Japan. 

But another potential headache has been lingering since the early 2000s, one that hasn't been functionally resolved, and it impacts technology that's been around since the '90s: your key fob.

Your key fob is a security innovation that originated as a way to remotely unlock your doors and evolved into something that can start your engine, even prohibit it from starting if you only have a key. Like a lot of emerging technology, the key fob has presented as many problems as practical enhancements. 

When I owned a '98 Saab 900, I went swimming with my keys in my pocket. The water corroded the fob, and although I was able to manually unlock my door with my key, I was unable to start the car. $1000 later for a proprietary fix at a dealership and I could drive my car again. After that, I kept plenty of backup fobs handy. But like sticking your password on a computer monitor, the fob taped in my wheel-well made Saab's security enhancement moot.

But key fobs don't just pose an annoyance for car owners, they allow hackers access to your car. In 2006, David Beckham's BMW X5 was stolen by someone savvy enough to hack into the fob. What's insane is just how easy it is to do it. Keyless ignition computers are constantly scanning for your fob, but only within a few feet. If someone knows how to amplify that range and you're car's parked in your driveway, a hacker can open your doors - even start your car - from the key fob in your very own pocket. 

I sound more and more like my dad every day, but more technology means more things to fix. My first car had crank windows for that exact reason, and after driving a 2001 Beetle to Key West with no air conditioning and frozen windows, I know why I'm sounding more and more like my dad.

Beyond the electronic hiccups of what comes "standard" today are the growing ramifications of the automobile's evolution into a moving piece of software. Sometimes the simplest innovation, the one most time-tested, is the best. In the case of the automobile, that might be the traditional key. Sure, no key is truly unique, but when you need two different keys to unlock your door and start your ignition, no one's going to hack a unique paring old-skool. And sure, you can start a 1988 Camry with a screwdriver, but who's going to steal a 1988 Camry? 

It's not pretty, but it'll last forever.

My next car's going to be a pre-1990 Civic, four wheels and an engine. Is your keyless, push-button ignition really an innovation, or just a Jetsonian piece of gimmicky futurism? Is it really that hard to turn a key? 

No, it's not. And until cars are levitating above magnetic streets or driving my commute for me, there's no reason to spend upwards of $50,000 on a toy that's going to cost me my rent when my inspection comes due, all because something I never needed, or wanted, refuses to work. 

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