A surprisingly simple way to foil car thieves

An innovative vehicle security system called Battery Sleuth, developed by a research team led by the University of Michigan, aims to address the rising vehicle theft rates caused by the increasing technology in cars.

With a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the team plans to conduct large-scale testing of Battery Sleuth, which utilizes the auxiliary power outlet in vehicles to protect against wireless hacking and traditional break-ins.

Battery Sleuth operates by authenticating drivers through voltage fluctuations in a vehicle’s electrical system, measured when drivers enter a numerical code into a keypad device plugged into the auxiliary power outlet. The system creates a unique “voltage fingerprint” by delivering a predetermined series of voltage fluctuations. A receiver recognizes this fingerprint and enables the vehicle to start. Drivers can also manually deliver the voltage fluctuation by engaging auxiliary functions that draw battery power, such as turning on and off the windshield wipers, headlights, or locking and unlocking the doors.

Installed between the vehicle’s battery and electrical system, Battery Sleuth’s default mode limits the current to power electronics and lights but not enough to start the vehicle. Only when the system detects the pre-set voltage fluctuations does it allow the full power from the battery to the starter.

Battery Sleuth also incorporates defenses against hacking or physical attacks on the device, including an alarm that sounds if illegitimate activity is detected and a resistor that shuts down the vehicle’s electrical system when an unauthorized power source is connected. The system can be installed as an add-on for existing vehicles or as a permanent component in new vehicles.

The research team conducted a field test study on eight vehicles, demonstrating that the Battery Sleuth prototype was over 99.9% effective at detecting and preventing unauthorized activity without interfering with normal vehicle operation. The new grant will fund further testing at U-M’s Mcity test facility, with the goal of creating a commercially viable prototype that could be scaled up for production and potentially replace traditional keys and fobs.

Vehicle theft costs drivers and insurance companies billions of dollars annually, and Battery Sleuth aims to address these losses by providing an independent security system that works alongside existing vehicle technologies. By mitigating vulnerabilities introduced by each new layer of technology, Battery Sleuth offers a comprehensive solution to vehicle security.

The research project was supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Computer and Network Systems under the Computer Science and Engineering Directorate, grant number 2245223.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.