Car theft is big business. Here in the UK, nearly 490,000 incidences are reported every year; in the USA, the figure nears 1.3 million. Therefore, any system that enhances vehicle security is not only welcomed by car owners, but could make lots of money for its originator.
Not surprising, then, that German chip company Infineon recently announced 32bit microcontrollers with embedded security hardware that’s designed to frustrate the lives of car thieves. These controllers, part of the AUDO MAX family and the new AUDO MAX SHE (Secure Hardware Extension) microcontrollers (Fig. 1), provide additional security to car electronic control units (ECUs).
The development of these MCUs pushes Infineon closer to meeting the vehicle security wish-list of the Manufacturers’ Software Initiative Working Group on Security. It thus places the chipmaker in a good position with influential car manufacturers such as Audi, BMW, Daimler, Porsche, and Volkswagen, all of which are members of that working group.
Typical microcontroller security solutions rely on software systems that work in conjunction with additional, and often external, hardware, which makes them more susceptible to tampering. Conversely, the AUDO MAX SHE system monolithically integrates a secure keystore that cannot be read without the correct security authorization code—system communication doesn’t run via external bus systems.
To further thwart the would-be auto thief, SHE contains a cryptographic module that encrypts access codes with up to 128 bits. That means a system’s codes cannot be illegitimately read and altered.
Infineon says these are important functions for tamper-proofing control units and protecting them against theft. Even if a stolen ECU were to be fitted into another identical vehicle, its engine performance characteristics could not be changed because an ECU’s cryptographic individual key must match all cryptographic keys within a vehicle’s ECU network. On top of that, the key is securely stored in the SHE.
For example, the key store cannot be read by diagnostic software. This protects the secret keys from software attacks. SHE also prevents tampering during boot-up. The secure boot feature ensures that only the original software is loaded during the boot process. Generally speaking, car owners can take considerable comfort from the fact that electronic design is making their vehicles harder to steal.
But a word of warning! Do not rely entirely on sophisticated electronics to keep your cars safe. Police reports in the UK reveal that thieves are circumventing these sophisticated anti-theft vehicle systems by stealing the owner’s car keys. Many burglars no longer “case the joint” for valuable personal possessions, but rather target the valuable car sitting on the driveway.
Today, more home burglaries involve swiping the car keys to steal the vehicle. So my non-electronic advice is to not leave your keys in a handy position by the front door. Also, while smart vehicle security systems are great, don't forget those clumsy unsophisticated ones (Fig. 2) that can also stop a car thief in his tracks.