Keyless ignitions are now standard in more than half of the 17 million cars sold annually, according to the New York Times. And you can see the appeal — turning your car on and off with the push of a button is slick. It also allows for quicker access to your vehicle should you end up alone in a parking lot at night.
But a new report by Which? found that keyless cars are alarmingly easy to break into. Of the 237 models tested for the report, 230 of them, including a Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, could be opened using “relay technology.”
The name “relay” comes from the employment of a relay box, a device which wirelessly transmits signals from one location to another. If someone wants to steal a keyless car, they can hold one relay box outside a home’s front door (or somewhere near where the car keys will be hanging) and receive the signal the key fob gives off through the walls. The signal can then be transmitted to a second relay box near the car and this will “fool” the vehicle into thinking the key is nearby, and unlock the doors.
Car models that aren’t susceptible to relay technology break-ins, according to the report, are all Jaguar Land Rovers. And some companies have taken measure to prevent theft in their keyless entry vehicles; BMW and Mercedes both added motion sensors so the car cannot be unlocked if the key fob is motionless.
According to the US Department of Justice, car theft has decreased since 2008 when 959,059 cars were stolen. In 2017, this number was 773,139. Upon the release of the Which? report, car manufacturers all gave blanket statements on how they are always looking to improve security. Ford said customers should look into buying a stronger lock box for their keys to avoid this occurrence, and Hyundai said the company would “continue to develop and update effective counter-measures against all hacking and relay attacks.”
The quest to create a totally keyless ignition has been underway since the mid-20th century. Mercedes creating the first proximity key, which could fit in a wallet, in 2003. A year later, they released the key fob we are familiar with today. In 2004, Chevrolet Malibu introduced remote start to the market, so a driver could turn their car on from a distance. In 2016, BMW released a key with an LCD touchscreen, a kind of pseudo-smartphone that allows drivers to lock or unlock the door, set the temperature with the car, open the trunk, and shows important information like the gas level. You just have to be within 1,000 feet of your vehicle.
This is all to say that Americans have long wanted a sleek, multifunctional “key,” so even with these safety concerns, it’s unlikely that keyless ignition will be less in-demand. As Ford further commented to CNN, responding to the report, “To do well here, manufacturers should basically not offer keyless technology, which is counter to customer demand and feedback.”
So as long as the sleeker push-to-start option is available and popular, as the sheer number of vehicles with the feature suggest it is, it seems that car manufacturers will not discontinue it, no matter how vulnerable the cars may be.