Car Thieves Use Handheld Electronics to Steal Keyless Cars

A growing number of car thefts involve criminals using equipment to reprogram remote entry keys

2 min read
Car Thieves Use Handheld Electronics to Steal Keyless Cars
Photo: iStockphoto

Cars that allow owners to simply press a button on a remote control to start up their vehicles have become increasingly tempting targets for car thieves. The incidence of keyless car thefts has risen as criminals simply buy handheld electronic devices online that can reprogram access to luxury vehicles such as Range Rovers.

The security risk has grown to the point where insurance companies have begun refusing coverage to drivers in London who own keyless vehicles but don’t stash their expensive rides in underground parking lots or other secure locations, says an article inThe Guardian. Car thieves have made plying their illicit trade much easier by simply bypassing the security of the keyless ignition systemswith devices that are normally used by legitimate auto workshops for vehicle maintenance. The criminals have equipped themselves with these master keys by purchasing them on eBay.

The criminal act of stealing vehicles through the re-programming of remote-entry keys is an ongoing industry-wide problem,” said Jaguar Land Rover in a statement.

Jaguar Land Rover also cited a number of vehicles vulnerable to such theft, including the Ford Fiesta and Focus, Range Rover Evoque, Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a UK-based motor industry association, has pushed for new laws to address the problem, according to BBC News. SMMT wants to strengthen the regulations surrounding the use of such equipment and increase the punishments relating to equipment misuse.

Car manufacturers currently provide open access to the necessary technical information so that independent auto repair shops can service the after-market for such keyless ignition vehicles. Criminals have been able to exploit that fact by obtaining the usual maintenance equipment for their own purposes.

Vehicle thefts have fallen in the UK over the past decade, which mirrors a similar trend in the U.S. But the spate of luxury vehicle thefts in the UK may partly reflect how easily keyless ignition vehicles can be compromised with readily-available electronic equipment.

It should come as no surprise that modern cars dependent upon electronics could be vulnerable to such security risks. In 2011, Swiss researchers showed how they wirelessly hacked such keyless ignition systems—also called smart keys—for a number of vehicles. More recently, U.S. researchers surveyed the vulnerabilities of a new generation of “smart cars” that cellular and bluetooth communications, car apps, and “cyberphysical features” related to the car being able to perform actions such as autonomous braking.

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Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

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