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Can Location Technology Make Connected Cars More Secure?

UWB chip-based high accuracy location bubbles are applicable to drone, keychain finder, IOT, smart home devices and connected car technologies.

By Mickael Viot, Decawave

Indoor location systems are a growing trend in shopping malls, airports, retail stores and smart homes. These new technologies enable smartphones and electronic devices to determine their locations indoors much as GPS can do outdoors. Indoor location solutions are helping people find the items they want in large stores, find their gate or a shop in airports, find their keys and remote controls in smart homes, and much more.

At first glance, however, indoor location technologies seem to offer very little to connected cars. What need is there to track precise location within a car? Can it possibly help to know that a person or a device is located in the back left seat, or to map how to get from the back seat to the front?

We will see, however, that indoor location technology can deliver tremendous value in automobiles, particularly in connected cars. Far from the thing finding and mapping applications in large venues, the benefits of location technology in a connected car can tie directly to the car owner’s security and safety. A number of scenarios demonstrate huge security challenges for connected cars that can be addressed using location technologies. In particular, Ultra-Wideband (UWB) radio delivers the accuracy and speed that is required, and is also available in a chip for easy embedding.

Consider the challenge of information security in in-car mobile devices. If a connected car has a built-in tablet-like device delivering services, the car owner will likely want their contact list and calendar to be synchronized with the car’s device so that the car can drive to, and communicate with, their friends and scheduled events. Other connected car features also use information of the car owner or driver, such as automatically paying for gas, parking or tolls, sharing location information with mechanic shops and insurance companies, and much more. As connected cars add valuable features beyond incar mapping and browsing, these features will likely use the car owner’s or driver’s information.

Consider automatic payment for parking or toll roads. In the visions of many car companies, as a connected car pulls up to a payment station, the car’s computer communicates with the payment station to make the payment. One of the challenges of implementing this vision, however, is whether a car can verify that it is communicating with the right payment station at the right time. Wireless payment systems of this sort are susceptible to several variants of a “man-in-the-middle” attack, or, to be more precise, a “car-in-the-center” attack. Can a car that is waiting to exit communicate with the car behind it, trick the second car into thinking it is at the payment station and give payment details, and use those payment details for it’s (the first car’s) own payment?

As a scarier alternative, consider that many cars, including both connected cars and regular cars, use wireless communication to connect between some components and the car’s controller and dashboard. In some cases this wireless communication is between car components, in other cases it is opened up to the car owner’s smartphone. Both are clearly security concerns. For example, already six years ago there were reports of unsecured wireless communication between tire pressure sensors and the car’s dashboard being used to hack into the car’s dashboard and controller. And more recently reports indicate that the built-in WiFi in some connected cars can enable hackers to turn off the car’s alarm wirelessly. In these and other cases, cars are vulnerable due to their being unable to distinguish whether their wireless communication was being used from inside the car or the car itself, or from outside the car.

As a final example, consider a connected car with an anti-collision system that wants to track how far it is from pedestrians, bicyclists, garage walls and the like. These people and things might be in any direction, not only in front of the car or behind the car, and must be measured very accurately to assess whether they are in risk. Many systems attempt to solve this problem using cameras, but cameras cannot see behind parked cars or around corners.

Each of these scenarios demonstrate the value of what is growing called “secure bubbles.” In each situation, what the connected car really needs is to know, verifiably, that the device with which it is communicating is within a given distance of a given location. The car being asked for payment information at a pay station needs to verify that the pay station with which it is communicating is located within a meter of the driver side window, as is usually the case for payment stations. The connected car that receives control instructions needs to verify that the device that is trying to take control of the car is actually inside the car.

The technical task of a secure bubble is actually straightforward. A secure bubble is defined based on a location, presumably relative to the car, and the size and shape of the bubble. Then a system must be put in place to request and receive locations of devices communicating with the car system, to determine whether those devices are in or out of the secure bubble.

The biggest challenge, at this time, is the accuracy and latency of the location technologies on the market. How can any of the above capabilities be implemented when location technologies are only accurate to within 45 meters? Another challenge is that most indoor location solutions rely on smartphones or other mobile devices, which are great for downloading and running applications but are hard to integrate into electronic devices, especially small ones.

Ultra-Wideband (UWB) radio is a location technology that delivers the accuracy, speed and embeddability that connected cars need. UWB can measure location to within 510cm, which is much more accurate than can be achieved using WiFi or Bluetooth. This is because UWB was designed for location positioning, using fast impulse transmissions and sharp spikes for easier measurement of time of flight. This enables more accurate measurement with less susceptibility to noise and other error. UWB has recently been embedded in a wide variety of electronic devices, based on chips from DecaWave.


Another strength of UWB is that its signals can be used to measure distance in two ways. One is simply for one chip to transmit a signal that is received by another chip, which uses the signal to measure distance. A more accurate and resilient method, when both sides have sufficient power, is to use a two-way three-step protocol as shown. UWB chips can generally support both of these methods.


A final advantage of UWB is that, unlike many other high accuracy location measurement technologies, can also provide wireless communication while calculating range and location. In a connected car, the same radio technology that calculates location secure bubbles for safety considerations such as these can also support wireless communication between components in a car. Once the components are connected to UWB, they can also communicate with a car computer, which will monitor their working status and efficiently.

If you’re designing or making connected cars or connected car components, and want your component’s service to be safe and secure, UWB chip-based high accuracy location bubbles may be just the thing you need. UWB chips are reaching market in drones, keychain finders, IoT and smart home devices, and soon in connected car components. What will be the next connected car features to use accurate secure bubbles to enable security and safety?

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