Do You Have “Keyless” Ignition on Your Bike? Is It Safe?

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Technology on motorcycles is a double-edged sword, it bring us new features to amazing machines, like the Yamaha YZF-R1 and its slide control, but it can also, as seen by this tale.

Taking a cue from the car world, some motorcycle manufacturers have taken to supplying motorcycle owners with wireless key systems, where you only need to have the key on your person in order to start a motorcycle (note: I am not talking about the key systems where you press a button to start or unlock a vehicle).

The process to make this work is simple, as the key fob has an RFID implanted inside it, and when it comes into proximity of the motorcycle, a reader grabs the signal from the key, which has a special code that unlocks the bike and allows it start and be operated.

It’s a complex process that saves you five seconds in looking for your key. That’s called progress.

The problem of course is that thieves are becoming increasingly savvy to these changes in technology, and if OEMs aren’t careful, they can open-up consumers to a world of trouble.

In the case of wireless keys, a new work-around has been made that boosts the signal of the RFID reader, and thus makes it easier for a thief to hijack your ride.

Our friend Damon Lavrinc tells a tale of woe on Jalopnik about one of The New York Times‘ Prius-owning tech-bloggers, who saw his car hijacked with this very system. Checkout the full account of that thievery to see how painfully easy it is for thieves to make off with your bike or car.

Understand, the technology here is simple, a radio frequency booster is used to expand the range on a vehicle’s RFID reader, which means that a car or motorcycle can read the key’s unique code from a much farther distance than before.

Since a key is never really that far from the vehicle, especially when it’s parked at home, the boosted signal finds the key, and allows the operation of the vehicle. No brute force, no broken steering lock. The jacker just fires up the bike and rides away to the chop-shop.

Making matters worse, the booster boxes are cheap too. You can pick one up off eBay for $17.

There is plenty that OEMs could do to help mitigate the risk, and we are sure they will…on next year’s model (such is the rate of change).

But for instance, on BMW & Ducati models with RF keys, if a bike is started without the key, but the key is left behind, the motorcycle will continue to run until it is shut off (don’t learn this lesson the hard way, by the way).

This means the RF booster trick is only good enough for a getaway run — but that is enough for most thieves, who have a location in mind, or another vehicle to aid in the process of whisking away the target.

What can you do to protect yourself? The easiest answer would be not to buy one of these RF key equipped machines, but that hardly seems like a worthwhile response to the question. We want what we want.

Better advice would be to keep the key well away from the vehicle as a good precaution, though you may not be able to achieve an adequate distance from the vehicle if the booster is strong enough. There is an even easier option though.

For super-nerds, a Faraday cage will do the trick. For the less-nerdy, a simple “EMP pouch” or “Faraday bag” should suffice, and cost around $5 (note: there’s some debate about which Mylar pouches work in this application).

A thick metal box would likely do the trick as well…whatever will block the RF signal between the bike and the key.

Source: NYT via Lanesplitter

Jensen Beeler

Despite his best efforts, Jensen is called one of the most influential bloggers in the motorcycle industry, and sometimes consults for motorcycle companies, whether they've solicited his expertise or not.