Car theft has seen quite an evolution over the past decade or two, thanks to advances in the modern world of technology. No longer is a mangled coat hanger a necessary tool of the trade, nor rubbing wires together a required skill set when it comes to stealing cars. Now it’s all key-fob cloning and remote hacking tools. Even the world’s best built-in anti-theft device, the manual transmission, is being conquered—via extinction.
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All this is to say that car thefts are disappointingly high, with cars being lifted from owner’s driveways and, in some cases, ending up on another continent.
Enter the University of Michigan, which is working on a low-tech solution for a high-profile problem. Unofficially and temporarily dubbed the “Battery Sleuth,” its new prototype tech is rather simple. A device is connected between the car battery and its electrical system, and runs by monitoring voltage fluctuations. The driver(s) or owner(s) communicate or unlock said device through an old-school numerical keypad, or a slightly-higher-tech fingerprint sensor.
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Once the right code is entered, the Battery Sleuth will transmit a “voltage fingerprint” via the electrical system, and allow the battery to deliver all of its juice, and for the vehicle to start. If you either forget your code – or thieves botch the theft – the device caps battery-power distribution, allowing only the lights, wipers, and turn signals to work—not enough power to start the engine. (Maybe the device could let the radio work, too, and only play “Been Caught Stealing” by Jane’s Addiction. Just a thought!)
Think of it as vaguely akin to a physical form of digital two-factor authentication (2FA), with your key or fob being one factor; and your digits – I mean either your fingerprints or the numbers you need to tap into the car-mounted pad – being the other.
Why let the battery deliver power to those accessories at all? Interestingly, researchers say operating those limited systems in a particular sequence could also work as a backup authentication method itself. For example, the code to turn on your car could be to flick the left turn signal, then the right turn signal, then put the wipers on high and flash the high-beams twice. And just like forgetting you phone password, too many incorrect attempts at this code could be set to trigger an alarm and lock-out, completely shutting down all electrical systems.
Is it the most convenient? Maybe not. Is it fool-proof? Nah. But it sure beats waking up to an empty driveway.
The University of Michigan has run some early tests of the tech on eight vehicles, and found the Battery Sleuth to be 99.9 per cent effective “at detecting and preventing illegitimate activity without interfering with normal vehicle operation.” I mean, quite simply, this low-tech device works because, as the researchers put it, there isn’t anything to “hack.”
The university says there are at least three years of additional testing and research required before a Battery Sleuth-type device could be ready for mass-market consumption. So until then, lock your doors and keep your key fobs as far away as possible from your vehicle.