The History Of Immobilisers And Today

by | Dec 21, 2023 | Article

1. Introduction to Vehicle Security and the Advent of Immobilisers

In the ever-evolving landscape of automotive technology, the development of car immobilisers marks a significant milestone. An immobiliser is an electronic security device in motor vehicles that prevents the engine from starting without the correct key transponder ID. These sophisticated systems, designed to prevent unauthorised vehicle use, emerged in response to escalating car theft rates. Early forms of vehicle security were rudimentary, relying on physical barriers such as steering locks. However, as car theft techniques became more advanced, the need for a more robust and technologically driven solution became evident, leading to the birth of immobilisers.

2. The Genesis of Immobiliser Technology in the 20th Century

The concept of the car immobiliser can be traced back to the early 20th century. The electric immobiliser/alarm system was invented in 1919 by St. George Evans and Edward Birkenbuel, but it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that the technology began to take a recognisable form. Early iterations were simple, often utilising magnetic key systems that interacted with a vehicle’s ignition. This rudimentary approach laid the groundwork for more sophisticated systems, setting the stage for a revolution in car security.

3. The Immobiliser Renaissance: A Leap in Electronic Security

The 1990s witnessed a significant leap in immobiliser technology (as can be seen in the chart in the 8th section). Electronic immobilisers, which used transponder chips embedded in the car keys, became mandatory in new cars in several countries, including Germany since 1998, the UK since 1998, Finland since 1998, Australia since 2001, and Canada since 2007. These chips communicate with the car’s Engine Control Unit (ECU), ensuring that only a key with the correct chip could start the engine. The key’s transponder is activated by an electromagnetic field produced by a copper coil ring that surrounds the ignition barrel, which then broadcasts a unique binary code read by the vehicle’s ECU.This era marked a significant departure from mechanical locking systems, introducing a new paradigm in vehicle security.

4. The 21st Century: Smart Immobilisers and Integrated Systems

As the new millennium unfolded, car immobilisers evolved into sophisticated systems integrated with a vehicle’s onboard computer. Smart immobilisers came into play, offering features like remote locking and alarm systems that communicated with the immobiliser. Early models used a static code in the key, while later models used rolling codes or advanced cryptography. These advancements not only enhanced security but also offered convenience to users, showcasing a harmonious blend of safety and user-friendliness.

5. The Influence of Digital Technology on Immobiliser Systems

The digital age has brought the further revolution in immobiliser technology. Digital encryption and rolling code technology as mentioned above made the systems more secure, as each key signal was unique and changed with every use, making it nearly impossible for thieves to duplicate. In many modern systems, unauthorised attempts to code a key where the input data is incorrect can trigger a no-start condition much like entering your passcode into your phone incorrectly with too many attempts, except some cars can give you only one attempt and even alert security firms via satellite or mobile phone communication. This is done through the integration of immobilisers with telematics systems, allowing for remote monitoring and control of vehicles one documented instance can be seen in Lamborghini which naturally use audi immobilisers except the vehicle security systems are monitored remotely by Lamborghini.

6. Contemporary Challenges and the Rise of Relay Attacks

Despite these advancements, car thieves continually adapt their methods. The latest challenge in vehicle security is the relay attack. Relay attacks are a type of car theft method targeting vehicles with keyless entry systems. In these attacks, thieves use electronic devices to relay signals from a car key located inside a house to a vehicle parked outside, effectively tricking the car into thinking the key is nearby. This allows the thieves to unlock and start the car without needing physical access to the key.

Relay attacks are a growing concern due to the increasing popularity of keyless entry systems in modern vehicles. They highlight the need for enhanced security measures in car key technology and this vulnerability has prompted the automotive industry to develop more advanced encryption methods which are quickly being developed and tested to come into production and use in the next couple of years.

Currently the leading defences for relay attacks are faraday boxes/pouches which block your keys signal from extending further that the container they are in and secondary or even tertiary immobiliser and tracker systems which act like a ‘two-step’ verification system, even if you have the key in your hand the car will turn on but will not start until the unique passcode button sequence is entered on the vehicles many accessory button options or authorised through a phone application.

7. The Future of Immobilisers: Biometrics

Looking towards the future, the potential integration of biometrics in immobiliser systems on luxury car brands is on the horizon. Biometric systems, such as fingerprint and the controversial facial recognition as used by the CCP in their social credit score system, promise a personalised and nearly foolproof security method but also enter into the conversation ethical, privacy and personal data concerns if these systems were to become mandatory instead of top range additional extras.

8. Environmental and Economic Impact of Advanced Immobilisers

The advancement of immobiliser technology has not only enhanced vehicle security but also had a positive impact on the environment and economy. By reducing car theft, these systems decrease the demand for new vehicles to replace stolen ones, and also environmental factors involved around stolen vehicles being crashed and abandoned and oftentimes set on fire damaging the surrounding ecosystems. Economically, they save insurance companies and car owners significant amounts in theft-related costs.

The chart below documents the great decline in reported vehicle theft in the United Kingdom over the last 3 decades. It can be clearly seen the immense effect the advancement of vehicle immobiliser systems has had on the number of reported car thefts.

However in recent years to be exact the last 3-4 years we can begin to see a new increase in the numbers of reported vehicle theft due to the advent of the new style of car theft, relay attacks. It is estimated that 2023’s data will show a further 24.9% year-on-year increase compared to 2022 due to this new type of car theft. Though the clear increase in the numbers of vehicle theft recently, looking at the chart as a whole, a great reassurance can be found that with the technological advancements of today it will not be long before we begin to see stronger systems in place.

9. Conclusion: The Journey of Immobiliser Technology and its Role in Modern Society

In conclusion, the journey of car immobiliser technology from simple mechanical devices to sophisticated electronic systems reflects the dynamic interplay of technological innovation, evolving security challenges, and societal needs. Today, immobilisers are not just theft-prevention devices but integral components of a vehicle’s identity, offering a blend of security, convenience, and innovation. As we move forward, the continuous evolution of immobiliser technology will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the landscape of automotive security.