Cigarette lighter to the rescue: New solution secures cars from thieves

“The great thing about the power outlet is its simplicity—it’s just a wire connected to the battery, so there’s nothing to hack.”
Amal Jos Chacko
Representational image of a car theft.jpg
Representational image of a car theft.


Car theft rates have reached alarming heights lately, bringing attention to a disturbing reality—the surge in automotive technology is leaving vehicles increasingly vulnerable to hacking and theft

With advanced wireless systems and onboard communication networks becoming the new norm in cars, thieves have found new ways to exploit vulnerabilities and break into modern vehicles. 

Recognizing the need for a robust solution, a team of researchers has developed an ingenious solution stemming from a mundane feature—the auxiliary power outlet, more popularly known as the cigarette lighter.

Introducing Battery Sleuth

The University of Michigan-led research team has received a substantial $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and test Battery Sleuth, a vehicle security system protecting against sophisticated wireless hacking and old-school break-ins. 

What sets Battery Sleuth apart is its unusual approach to authentication, bypassing conventional methods like wireless key fobs and standardized onboard networks. 

Instead, the system authenticates drivers by measuring voltage fluctuations within a vehicle's electrical system. To interact with the system, drivers use a keypad device plugged into the auxiliary power outlet.

"The great thing about the power outlet is its simplicity—it's just a wire connected to the battery, so there's nothing to hack," explained Kang Shin, the Kevin and Nancy O’Connor Professor of Computer Science at U-M and lead researcher on the project. "And creating voltage fluctuations with components like windshield wipers or door locks is even simpler."

The system delivers a predetermined series of voltage fluctuations, akin to a "voltage fingerprint," into the car's electrical system when the driver enters a numerical code into the keypad. 

This fingerprint is recognized by a receiver, enabling the vehicle to start. Alternatively, drivers can manually generate the voltage fluctuation using a combination of auxiliary functions that draw power from the battery, such as flicking the windshield wipers, turning signals on and off, or locking and unlocking the doors.

In its default mode, Battery Sleuth allows the battery to deliver adequate current to systems like lights and electronics, but not enough for the starter to be powered. It is only by detecting the preset voltage fluctuation that full power is allowed to flow to the starter.

Towards a Safer Automotive Future

Battery Sleuth does not only offer a highly effective anti-theft mechanism; it also safeguards against hacking or physical attacks on the device itself. 

Equipped with a built-in siren that sounds in the presence of illegitimate activity and a resistor to shut down the vehicle's electrical system if connected to an unauthorized power source, the system provides multi-layered security.

A prototype of Battery Sleuth proved to be over 99.9 percent effective at detecting and preventing illegitimate activity without interfering with the car's normal operation in a field test involving eight cars. The team plans to conduct more extensive testing at U-M's Mcity test facility, aiming to develop a commercially viable prototype by the end of the three-year project.

Beyond its role as a theft deterrent device, the researchers envision expanding Battery Sleuth's capabilities to enable vehicle-sharing applications to potentially replace traditional keys and fobs.

With vehicle theft costing billions of dollars each year in the United States alone, Battery Sleuth's development couldn't come at a more critical time. 

It is not just security compromised by the recent trend to overwhelm drivers with technology. Moving all controls from physical buttons to menus hidden in layers on a touchscreen has caught the ire of many, with Volkswagen becoming one of the first manufacturers to admit to thinking about going back to physical controls. 

Perhaps not all tech is good tech. 

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