Biometrics on the steering wheel: the ultimate life tracker

Biometrics on the steering wheel: the ultimate life tracker

Technology News |
By eeNews Europe

According to market research firm IHS Inc., unit shipments of fingerprint sensors have grown from 316 million in 2014 to 499 million in 2015 and will continue to increase each year to peak at 1.6 billion in 2020.

Cars which are much more costly than smartphones and becoming increasingly connected, are the logical next step, it seems. A number of standalone fingerprint-based car starters and car locks have been around for a few years now on the car after-market.

Design cycles in the automotive industry are notoriously longer than in the smartphone industry, but solution vendors are looking for a strategic expansion into this market (after having successfully moved from the government and banking high-security access domain to the consumer domain).

Early January, global provider of silicon fingerprint sensors Fingerprint Cards (FPC) publicly stated that its solutions were under evaluation by leading global car makers and other automotive integrators, expecting its touch fingerprint sensor chip FPC1025 to be seen in a number of demos and public demonstrations for automotive applications during 2016.

Joined over the phone by eeNews Europe, FPC’s CEO Jörgen Lantto is confident about the penetration of fingerprint scanners in cars.

“Today for the smartphone industry, we ship about one million units per working day. That means our solution is used several billion times per day and is well proven. Although it’s too early to tell when the automotive industry will represent a mass market for fingerprint scanners, our customers and OEM partners have already given us their predictions and our impression is that there is a serious intent to move forward with this technology”.

“The pace at which it will happen will depend on consumer experience. If it’s great, this could accelerate acceptance and market penetration” he concluded.

Boasting flexibility and inconspicuous design, FlexEnable and ISORG revealed a large area fingerprint and vein sensor (86x86mm) designed on plastic, a solution that could wrap around a steering wheel, they say.

The sensor film is only 0.3mm thick and can operate in visible and near infra-red up to wavelengths of 900nm, measuring not only the fingerprint, but also the configuration of veins in the fingers for additional security versus that of a surface fingerprint alone. Designed at a 84µm pitch, the 1024×1024 pixels sensor features a 302dpi resolution versus the FPC1025’s 508dpi specification, though it could scan several fingers at once for increased security and does not require optics.

Flexenable and ISORG’s joint flexible sensor development.

The companies did not specify if they had built demonstrators specifically aimed at seducing automotive OEMs, but FlexEnable already develops conformable cockpit displays, which in principle, could also integrate the palm-sized fingerprint sensing solution.

Touch-sensing company Synaptics is also keen to enter the automotive market with its capacitive-based Natural ID fingerprint touch area technology. While the company is massively present in the smartphone market and has just made public its cooperation with Intel and Lenovo to develop a secure enterprise-level fingerprint authentication for the next generation Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks, on the automotive front, it has built a steering wheel demonstrator.

At CES 2016, it showcased an 8x8mm Natural ID fingerprint sensor integrated on the directional pad (D-Pad) of a steering wheel. On top of the usual user interface navigation capabilities offered by the D-Pad, the sensing area gave the user access to in-car payment and customized car settings.

Synaptics’ 8x8mm Natural ID fingerprint sensor integrated on the directional pad (D-Pad) of a steering wheel.

Anti-theft and comfort are the most trivial features car makers will sell to consumers, and in principle, you could well implement fingerprint-based security for a number of anonymous drivers without ID authentication, say by enrolling user 1, then user 2 etc… and never refer to a specific user identity.

But that’s not what car makers consider the key role of a biometrics-enabled user interface, it seems. And being able to formally identify who is in the driver’s seat has more implications than just allowing in-car payment in a parking lot.

Synaptics’ Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Human Interface Systems Division (HISD), Huibert Verhoeven admits that with self-driving cars coming next, car makers’ legal teams are working behind the scene to figure out who is in charge.

“For liability issues, you want to know for sure who is in the driver’s seat. Legal teams are worried about a four-year old driving to his grandma at the touch of a button” he explained.

In fact, more than just a key to more services, formal identification could be a requisite to operate any semi-autonomous or self-driving car.

Eventually, fingerprint authentication across multiple devices could make them interact in unexpected ways for the consumer. Patent WO 2014178934 A1 filed in 2014 by Continental Automotive Systems is looking at making sure that once a driver has been authenticated through a biometric identifier, the same biometric identifier recognised on his/her smartphone (providing the car and the cell phone communicate) would immediately disable the wireless communications to prevent driving while on the phone. The biometric identifiers listed include fingerprints but also face recognition from an inward looking cockpit camera.

Iris recognition is another technology that could surface into car cockpits. At this year’s CES, EyeLock demonstrated a proof of concept to validate a driver and authorize engine start (the frills being personalized driver settings).

Other biometrics are being evaluated, which could enter the cockpit and make insurance companies more confident about allowing a car to be driven, sometimes relating to the driver’s health condition.

Texas instrument has come up with a reference design for a concept demonstration of how a driver’s pulse rate, respiration rate, and ECG based heart rate can be obtained from a vehicle steering wheel. The company’s AFE4400 and AFE4300 biometric analog front-ends (AFE) enable the acquisition of all three parameters via simple hand contacts on the steering wheel.

TI’s TIDA-00292 biometric steering wheel reference design.


The reference design includes a full BLE connectivity design for easy interface to smartphones and tablets.

Inferring the driver’s health condition from such biometrics could help the car make such decisions as reducing speed, increasing the distance between vehicles, or changing route altogether to alleviate road-rage (see Stress tracker tames drivers).

Leveraging and connecting wearable fitness and health trackers to a vehicle’s infotainment system, Ford is looking at exploiting a driver’s health information beyond what a car’s sensor network could collect. Last December, Ford Motor Co. teamed up with Henry Ford Health System to sponsor a tech design challenge for employees to “develop concepts, such as smartphone apps, wearable devices or in-vehicle systems that could extend healthcare to the confines of a car”.

Resulting apps could expand the boundaries of patient monitoring, turning the car into a health-check capsule, not only for general health monitoring but also to issue warnings or to simplify health-related administrative tasks (medical test ordering, records access, appointment check-ins, prescription pick-ups). With more sensors being integrated in the car (including why not sweat-based alcohol and drugs tests), more biometric data could be collected and analysed to establish a driver’s capacity to sit responsibly behind the wheel.

Eventually, with ID authentication and personalized health checks carried out in the car, will insurance companies decide when you ought to drive or not and what sort of driving is safe-enough for the would-be driver? Is the individual car – once the freedom engine of the American dream – on the cusp of turning into the most scrutinized space on earth, a sort of high-security cell keeping the driver on probation?

Found guilty or suspicious of anything while in the cockpit? Boosted by their artificial intelligence, tomorrow’s data mining algorithms could well decide to lock you in and drive you to the nearest police station, be it for your own good or for the safety of others.

Related articles:

Stress tracker tames drivers

‘Heartbeat car’ displays driver’s pulse on biometric bodywork

Biosensors: insurance companies call the shots

Tracking offenders and consumers alike

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