There are many things that we trust implicitly, often by the simple idea that since it’s everywhere or that many people use it then it must be safe. It’s hard not to do this as few of us possess the knowledge and understanding of all the systems we use in order to establish explicit trust. Indeed it’s often the case that these systems are considered safe until a flaw is exposed in them, then leading to a break in trust which then must be reestablished. One such system, the keyless entry fobs many of us have with our cars, has just proven itself to be vulnerable to attack but it all could have been avoided with an incredibly simple change to the underlying code.
Keyless entry on your car relies on a fairly simple system for its operation. What happens when you press the unlock button is that a code is wirelessly transmitted from your fob to your car, unlocking the doors. Back in the early days the code that these fobs sent was unique and fixed which, whilst preventing one person’s fob from opening your car, meant it was incredibly simple to copy the code. This was then changed to the current standard of a “rolling code” which changes every time you press the key. This made straight up duplication impossible, as the same code is never used twice, however it opened it up to another, more subtle, attack.
Whilst the codes changed every time the one thing that the manufacturers of these systems didn’t do was invalidate codes that had already been used. This was primarily due to convenience as there’s every chance your fob got pressed when you weren’t in range of the car, burning a code. However the problem with this system is that should someone capture that code they could then use it to unlock your car at a later date. Indeed there had been many proof of concept systems developed to do this however the latest one, a $30 gadget called RollJam, takes the process to a whole new level.
The device consists of a receiver, transmitter and signal jammer. When the device is activated it will actively jam any wireless key entry signal, stopping it from reaching the car. Then, when a user presses their key fob to unlock their doors, it captures the code that was sent. This stops the doors from unlocking however nearly all users will simply press it again, sending another code. RollJam then transmits the first code to the car, unlocking the doors, whilst capturing the other code. The user can now enter their car and RollJam now has a code stored which it can use to gain access at a later date. The device appears to work on most major brands of vehicles with only a few of the more recent models being immune to the attack.
What amazes me is that such an attack could’ve easily been prevented by including an incremental counter in the key fob. Then when transmitting a code the fob also sends with it the current count, meaning that any code sent with a previous number is void. This can also be defeated by making the codes expire after some time which, I admit, is a little more difficult to implement but surely not beyond the capability of companies with billions of dollars in annual revenue. To their credit some companies have made headway in preventing such an attack however that won’t mean a lot for all the cars that are currently out there with systems that are susceptible to such an attack.
In the end it comes down to a combination of convenience and bottom dollar programming that led such a pervasive system being as broken as it is. Unfortunately unlike IT systems, which can be patched against such vulnerabilities, these keyless entry systems will likely remain vulnerable as long as they’re in use. Hopefully current car manufacturers take note of this issue and work to address it in future models as, honestly, it seems like one of the most rookie mistakes ever.
I’ve never really been one for trains, neither those that serve as public transport or their diminutive brethren that grace the basements of many, but the technology behind some of them is quite impressive. Indeed you can’t go past the Shinkansen of Japan, trains that are so fast that they regularly compete with airlines for the same passengers and have recently achieved astonishing speeds. However beneath all the technical wizardry that powers those impressive machines lies some incredibly simple physical principles, ones that can be replicated with some copper wire, a couple magnets and a battery:
The way it works is incredibly simple. The “car” of the train is made up of a couple high-strength magnets that are oriented in the same direction, ensuring that their magnetic fields flow in the same direction. Then when the car is placed onto the track of coiled wire they help complete a circuit with the coil of wire around it. This then creates a magnetic field around the car and the resultant force between it and the permanent magnets results in a force that’s vectored forward. However the time it will be able to do this is limited however as the creation of the magnetic field consumes power from the battery. Most estimates online have the run time somewhere around 30 minutes or so from a typical alkaline AA battery.
Indeed one interesting thing about this train is that it relies on the high internal resistance of regular alkaline batteries to function properly. You see a typical battery has what amounts to a current limiter inside it, preventing anything from drawing current too fast from it. If they used say a NiCd style battery, which has an incredibly low internal resistance, I can see the results being either much more spectacular (like the car flying around the track) or catastrophic (like the battery overheating and the wire melting). Actually now I’m kinda curious about what would actually happen.
Now where’s that old battery charger of mine…
One of my favourite shows that I found out about far too late into my adult life was How It’s Made. The premise of the show is simple: they take you into the manufacturing process behind many common products, showing you how they go from their raw materials into the products we all know. Whilst I’d probably recommend skipping the episodes which show you how some of your favourite food is made (I think that’s called the Sausage Principle) the insight into how some things are made can be incredibly fascinating. However whilst everyday products can be interesting they pale in comparison to something like the following video which shows how solid aluminium wheels are created for an upcoming jet car:
I think what gets me most about this video is the amazing level of precision that they’re able to obtain using massive tools, something which usually doesn’t go together. The press seems to be able to move in very small increments and can do so at speeds that just seem to be out of this world. The gripper also seems to have a pretty high level of fidelity about it, being able to pick up an extremely malleable piece of heated aluminium without structurally deforming it. That’s only half the equation though as the operators of these machines are obviously highly skilled in their operation, being able to guide them with incredible accuracy.
In fact the whole YouTube channel dedicated to the Bloodhound SSC car is filled with engineering marvels like this from showing off the construction of the monocoque and the attached components all the way to the interior and the software they’ll be using for it. If the above video had you tingling with excitement (well, I was, but I’m strange) then I highly recommend checking them out.
There’s a lot of tech that comes out these days that seems incredibly obvious in retrospect, enough so that sometimes it seems like companies are reading your mind for ideas. I do this a lot although I also tend to think that there’s usually a reason why those innovations never see the light of day. I remember thinking a long time ago, a time when I was more intimately acquainted with the internals of my car’s engine bay than I am today, that the engine valves on engines could be independently driven rather than using the camshaft like most do today. As it turns out there’s actually been quite a bit of development work in this area with a few camless engines in production today. None of them are as cool as the technology that Koenigsegg has developed however as their camless engines could prove revolutionary for the entire auto industry:
So the gear heads among you will probably be aware of things like VTEC and VVT-i which have been the standard way to give cars good fuel economy at the low end whilst also allowing them to achieve better acceleration and top speed. The Free Valve technology is like the next step in that technology allowing you to have almost limitless numbers of valve profiles. Additionally the response curve of the valves is very different to what you’d traditionally see, something which I didn’t think would provide any benefit. As the video dives into though you can see that there’s numerous advantages to this type of valve control system. Showing it running on a production model Saab was quite impressive too as it shows that it wasn’t just a concept technology that would never see the real world.
What really got me though was the Free Valves ability to hook up to a compressed air tank. It’s akin to the regenerative braking systems that electric and hybrid vehicles employ today except this one works on cars that don’t use electric propulsion. It’s a powerful idea for a couple reasons, most notably that you could use this to overcome the most inefficient periods of an internal combustion engine, namely acceleration and idle. Of course there’s also the flip side of it being used to make high performance cars even faster something which I’m sure will make its way into the next generation Koenigsegg supercars.
I’m still an advocate for an all electric future, at least for consumer level transportation, but technology like this is still incredibly useful for where electric simply doesn’t make sense. Hopefully this tech will make its way down to production cars sooner rather than later as even if those savings are only half what they claim they are that’s still an incredible amount of greenhouse gasses not entering the atmosphere. Plus I’m sure everyone would be welcoming of cars that use less fuel but provide more power as I know I certainly would.
I’m something of an armchair neuroscience minor as I often find myself researching behavioral traits, influences and motivations simply for the heck of it. I think its partly because I have this need to understand why people act the ways they do at a fundamental rather than practical level thanks to my many years spent as an extreme introvert during my high school years. It also hooks into the skeptical side of me quite well as I’ll often find bits of pop psychology that get bandied around by my not-as-interested friends that I’ll attempt to correct, lest they spread that nonsense to other people.
It seems that some ideas are just too sexy to go away, however.
I was watching TV recently, a veritable treasure trove of techniques based on modelling the human psyche, when an ad for a car popped up. Now I can’t remember exactly which car it was and a quick Google brought up two current campaigns that play on the same idea. The first one is a series of print ads from Mercedes-Benz and the second (and the one that seems the most familiar) is one from Kia:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySrymOeWjM8
They both play on that whole left brain/right brain idea where by the left side is some kind of cold calculating logic driven engine whilst the right side is the creative one, filled with random ideas and that spark that all creative people seek. This then lead onto the ideas that men are typically left side dominant and women are right side dominant. However there also seemed to be a bevy of online tests available to check if you were left or right side dominant, seeing if you’re more of a creative than logical kind of person. For years it seemed everyone was drinking this kool aid, seemingly without any consideration to how the brain actually works.
It is true that there are functions of the brain that appear to be dedicated to particular hemispheres, which is referred to as the lateralization of brain function, it can also be shown that both sides of the brain are quite capable of performing those functions and indeed do so in many cases. There’s also no guarantees as to which functions are lateralized where as different people will have different hemispheres dominant for a particular function. Short of removing one half of the brain no person can be truly left or right brain dominant in the sense of being creative or logical. Indeed the research shows that both logical and creative functions are present in both hemispheres completely debunking this whole idea.
What was even more preposterous were the online tests devised to determine whether you were right or left brain dominant. The most famous of which, one which spurred a rather heated discussion between me and my friends at the time, was the spinning dancer. Looking at the image you’ll see the dancer spinning either clockwise or counter clockwise and that was somehow meant to tell which part of your brain was dominant. Funnily enough I could see it spin both ways and could make it change on demand by looking at the feet and the shadow so I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a proper test for a phenomenon I already didn’t believe in. Indeed it is simply just an optical illusion with your brain “filling in” details that it perceives as missing and such activities are carried out by the visual cortex which spans both hemispheres.
The fact that we’re still seeing things referencing this whole fake phenomena means that it’s still widely believed to be true, which is really unfortunate. Whether a person is more creative or logical has nothing to do with which part of their brain is dominant and is in fact more likely due to the nurturing of the innate creative/logical talent that we all have. I guess any simple metric that divides people into two groups will always be popular (“Oh you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s such a left brain!”). It’s a shame really but hopefully like any fad it’ll eventually fade away, never to be mentioned again.
The skies were dark, a foreboding of what lay ahead. Today I would part ways with my yellow companion of the past 7 days, my Corvette ZHZ. It was always going to be a bitter sweet moment having travelled almost a thousand miles together but it was made all the more bitter by the fact I couldn’t take it with me to Discovery’s last launch. Still I was determined to make the most of this day, rising early so that I could take my time driving her back to the place from whence she once came. Whilst I wasn’t really that emotional I still couldn’t help but look back over my shoulder at the stunning piece of automobile engineering whilst I slowly walked away.
I was in a daze for a good hour afterwards, wandering around Orlando airport trying to figure out what to do. I had a couple hours to burn until I picked up my next car, a convertible of some description, and I hadn’t had any breakfast. The pickings on this side of the airport were quite slim as I had been over them several times whilst I was staying at the Hyatt but I finally settled on some yoghurt and coffee from the local Starbucks. I had came prepared for this brief interlude back at the airport with my copy of Pandora’s Star grasped firmly in one hand and proceeded to devour a couple chapters whilst I waited for my next ride to be ready.
I’m always a little nervous when it comes to booking things over the Internet and this was no exception. Having only booked this a couple nights ago I was hoping that everything was ok and I would be walking out there, FSM willing, with some kind of car that would make it to the KSC tomorrow. Thankfully everything checked out and 30 minutes later I was in possession of a red convertible Ford Mustang. I was flying blind this time around as I hadn’t bothered to get a GPS for it but I was confident I could find my way back home since I had done it enough times in the corvette, but time would tell on that one.
Then just as I was leaving the skies began to rain down with nearly the same fury I had felt whilst I was down in Miami. It was as if nature itself was abhorred by the notion of me driving another car, weeping for two companions separated by circumstances. I managed to pull under an overpass and figured out the roof just in the nick of time saving myself and the pristine interior the torrential downpour that was now savaging the area. In amongst all this I noticed I had found myself on the same road I had gotten lost on the first day I spent driving here in the USA, promptly righting my course and finding my way home about 30 minutes later.
I spent the majority of my day here in the hotel, watching videos and reading a couple more chapters of my book. It was a tactical move to try and aid in the healing of my foot in preparation for tomorrow since I didn’t want to be hopping around in pain when the shuttle roars into action tomorrow afternoon. On any other day it would’ve been one I considered wasted but with the downpour and relatively cold conditions all across Florida currently it didn’t seem like a bad way to spend the day. It would’ve been even better if I could’ve spent it cuddled up with my wife in front of the TV, but our separation (which was due to end tomorrow) put an end to that idea before it began. I’ll just have to make up for lost time when we see each other again.
Spending the whole day indoors did leave me a little restless so I decided I’d at least attempt to find somewhere to eat outside of the hotel. Driving around for 30 minutes I couldn’t find anything past crappy chain restaurants or fast food, certainly nothing worth the price of admission like it was back in Miami. Defeated I returned to my hotel room and ordered room service, which they got wrong. I wasn’t really about to argue with it though since I wasn’t particularly hungry and the meal they had sent up was decent¹.
Tomorrow will, hopefully, be the climax of my 11 days spent here in the sunny southern state. The enormity of it has still yet to set in and I’m sill anxiously awaiting confirmation that my flight has been changed but those aside it still excites me that I’ll be able to bear witness to something as awesome as a shuttle launch. No doubt tomorrow’s post will be one of elation, awe and a drained wallet as my fiscal conservative side gets pushed aside by that little boy in me who just won’t stop dreaming about becoming an astronaut and wants that t-shirt to go with it. I’ve been ever so jealous of those lucky people who got in on the NASA tweetup, living vicariously through them as I follow their tweets and pictures. Hopefully I’ll get to join them next year (hint hint) when I come over to see the very last shuttle launch.
¹Just as I was finishing up this post they brought up the correct order and said the other meal was on the house. Well that was lucky and it would be even better if I had a fridge in this place. Maybe it’s time to make an impromptu one with wet towels in the bathroom, that ought to keep it cool enough for breakfast tomorrow morning! 😉