Unlocking the future

Two images. Two totally different impressions. The first is one of ultimate security, straight out of a Tom Clancy novel: You develop an intimate relationship with your vehicle by touching your finger to a transparent square roughly the size of a postage stamp on the instrument panel. It scans your fingerprint, and with that touch, your car recognizes you as an authorized driver, knows your favorite

Two images. Two totally different impressions.

The first is one of ultimate security, straight out of a Tom Clancy novel: You develop an intimate relationship with your vehicle by touching your finger to a transparent square roughly the size of a postage stamp on the instrument panel.

It scans your fingerprint, and with that touch, your car recognizes you as an authorized driver, knows your favorite radio and seat settings and just about anything else you'd like it to know. If it's your dad's car, it could even regulate how much horsepower you're allowed to use.

Or you're approaching your minivan with arms full of groceries. Instead of having to fumble for your keys or even a key fob, the side door or rear hatch senses you coming and opens automatically.

Now replay this scenario from the perspective of the evil Wesley Snipes character in the campy 1993 Sci-Fi thriller Demolition Man defeating ultra-sophisticated security measures with old-fashioned violence. Retinal scanning devices are no problem for him. He just carves out someone's eye and holds it up for the camera to read.

If fingerprints are the car keys of the future, do 21st century car thieves chop off fingers instead of breaking windows and tearing into steering columns? In this scenario, new technology doesn't defeat crime, it shifts the violence from vehicles to people. That's not progress.

Like it or not, electronic devices ranging from fingerprint readers to the familiar key fob are rapidly replacing the traditional insert-and-turn key.

Ward's data shows that in 10 years, the installation rate of remote keyless entry (RKE) systems on U.S.-made cars has steadily risen from a little more than 10% in 1991 to almost 70% in 2001.

Most industry experts expect passive, “hands-free” keyless entry systems to follow a similar growth curve.

How would they work? Your vehicle recognizes you or a so-called electronic “smart card” tucked in your pocket or purse, and opens up automatically — and locks itself when you leave. No more searching for keys.

The fastest acceptance will be in Europe, where auto makers are fond of the technology, with Japan and North America a distant second and third. Like most new technologies, applications are starting mostly in high-end luxury vehicles, but suppliers say the next step — especially in the U.S. — likely will be applications in minivans and SUVs.

Suppliers are expecting big volume sales in the U.S. beginning around 2006, a couple of years after demand takes off in Europe.

Renault SA first introduced the concept of RKE in 1982. It went on to become today's ubiquitous push-button key fob. Popularity skyrocketed. RKE is now standard on 15 of 67 light trucks and 29 of 64 cars in the U.S.

Renault is trying to be a leader again with passive “hands free” keyless systems. The '01 Renault Laguna II is the first mass-market vehicle equipped with a passive keyless system.

A smart card communicates with the car via radio frequency once it comes within a few meters of the vehicle. The person carrying the card merely reaches for the door handle, and the vehicle unlocks automatically. Once inside the cabin, the Laguna driver inserts the card into a slot in the dashboard before pushing an engine ignition button.

Cadillac is expected to be the first Detroit brand to offer the feature, on a '03 model.

The first-ever passive keyless system was commercialized by Siemens Automotive (before it became Siemens VDO), and introduced on the '99 Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan. Siemens says it has 12 European passive start and entry applications that will hit the market between now and 2006, plus some U.S. applications, including Cadillac.

Among the new vehicles to feature Siemens VDO's system is the all-new '03 Mercedes E-Class.

Mercedes markets the option under the name Keyless-Go, and the technology differs slightly from Renault's Valeo system.

As the driver approaches with smart card in pocket and reaches for the door handle, the electronic key receives signals transmitted by inductive antennae positioned in the doors, in the center console, beneath the parcel shelf and inside the rear bumper. The key then transmits radio waves containing an identification code, which is then checked electronically by the vehicle.

If the codes match, the driver can enter.

Likewise, Delphi Delco Electronics will produce its first passive-entry system this year. Technology will be priced competitively with current-generation RKE, which is relatively inexpensive.

Conventional RKE usually is package-priced on mainstream midsize cars in the U.S. for about $500, along with power windows and power locks. Delphi Delco has plenty of experience with keyless entry, having produced some 25 million RKE key fobs in the past five years, mostly for General Motors Corp.

Valeo's keyless entry system on the upcoming Renault Laguna adds a level of complexity.

“It's actually created an extra step to the process of starting your car,” says J May, Ford's design chief. “If electronics help you get to simplicity, great. If they just make your life more complex, that's never going to fly with the customer.”

Mays promises, however, a “unique take” on keyless entry in the next-generation Jaguar XJ, which arrives next year. He declines to give a hint.

Electronic recognition also means that the traditional ignition cylinder no longer is necessary. That's why the new BMW 7-Series is without one.

The blunt, rectangular key loads into a port on the instrument panel. An adjacent button is pressed to start, and later stop, the engine. The electronics in the key allow it to store crucial data about the car. The car's VIN, mileage, service data and any fault codes all are transmitted to the key, which can be downloaded by the dealer for service.

Most OEMs and suppliers think consumers will be willing to pay more for passive keyless entry. The system on the Mercedes S-Class is a $1,000 option.

Supplier sources say a fingerprint identification system, supplied by Siemens, will debut on a European luxury car at the end of this year or early next year as an '04 model.

Because the technology is new and still not foolproof, it will be tied purely to “personalization” features such as radio and climate control pre-sets, not critical functions such as door locks or ignition.

Siemens VDO is working with Volvo Cars and Ford Research Laboratory on the Volvo Personal Communicator, a hand-held device that features fingerprint recognition and Bluetooth.

Certain programmed functions can be changed from a distance (such as navigation system routing), and vehicle diagnostic information can be sent to and from the vehicle. Medical information about the driver can be stored and sent to emergency personnel in the event of a collision.

But fingerprint technology, while fascinating, isn't well suited for use on the outside of the vehicle as a vehicle entry system, says Jerry Bricker, vice president sales and marketing of Omron Automotive Electronics, a major supplier.

“You'd think it would be a natural, but it's not really hardened for the environment,” he says.

Ice and dirt can cause problems for the fingerprint reader, he says, adding that you probably don't want to be sticking your bare finger on something when it's 20-below outside.

But advanced biometric recognition systems are not entirely out of the question in the future, says Reiner Emig, senior vice president of electronic systems at Bosch.

Bosch is doing research in face recognition, retinal scans, iris recognition, palm scans and voice recognition, he says. The biggest expense involved with incorporating most of these technologies into vehicles is installing a sophisticated camera, perhaps near the rear-view mirror.

If a camera already is in the car — as part of a smart airbag occupant recognition system, for instance — then face or iris recognition could be feasible, Emig says. He suggests that smart cards also could become universal identifiers in the future, tied in with credit cards.

You could pull into a gas station, the pump would recognize your card and you could fuel up without ever cracking open your wallet.

Visteon Corp., with its expertise in voice recognition, also has been researching the use of biometrics in replacing keys. For instance, voice commands could be given someday to unlock the doors and start the engine.

But the supplier hasn't developed a solid business case to justify such product development.

“We don't see the consumer pull for it, and we don't see the (OEM) customer pull for it, either,” says John Kill, Visteon's vice president-product development. “We might have a slick product, but if the consumer is not ready for it, it won't go.”

Does everybody really need passive keyless entry? No. Few drivers need key fobs or heated seats, either. But once you've had them, they're almost impossible to give up. That's an issue auto makers and suppliers are definitely keyed into.

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