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Essential technology: Remote access

It’s pouring down and you’re glad to sling the weekly shop in the back of the car. But just after the bootlid has been shut, you realise the ignition key is inside.

Relax. The latest piece of clever automotive technology means help will soon be at hand.

Boffins at BMW have found a novel way to take all the angst and frustration from locking yourself out of the car – something that happens to dozens of us every day.

They’ve hit on the idea of using a special call centre in London to transmit GPS signals that can instruct cars to unlock themselves so their owners can get back on the move.

New models from the German company fitted with satellite navigation systems now come with Remote Services, a package allowing owners to control some functions of their cars from the outside.

“As well as being able to get your car locked or unlocked, it is now possible to pinpoint it to within a metre if you’ve forgotten where it was parked.

The system operates irrespective of where you happen to be. If you are abroad you can still arrange for your car’s air conditioning to heat or cool the interior ready for your drive from the airport,” said company senior electronics engineer Axel Moering.

BMW began working on the technology when it was found that company service centres were handling more than 7,000 lock-out calls each year in Germany alone.

“We see Remote Services as a natural extension to our existing online, assist and service systems.

“The technology makes it simple to operate and once the car owner’s identity is cleared, it is easy for our call centre staff to send encrypted commands to the on-board telematics control unit via the car’s SIM card,” said Moering.

Meanwhile, another technological advance will enable the family car to ‘refuse’ use by unauthorised drivers.

Engineers at the premium car-maker’s research and innovation centre in Munich are testing a prototype 5 Series saloon that refuses to start unless it recognises the person sitting in the driving seat.

Using next-generation biometric equipment, the car takes just a few milliseconds to establish the identity of the person behind the wheel.

If this matches data held in its computer, the engine fires into life and the car immediately begins to adjust the seats, steering, in-car entertainment and even air conditioning systems according to the driver’s preferences.

Known as driver memory, the breakthrough equipment is based on a small video camera built into the instrument panel. It snaps into action the moment the car is unlocked and shoots a series of facial pictures focused around the eyes.

“The car will simply refuse to start unless it comes up with a perfect image match,” explained electronics engineer Elmar Weiss.

“We think this application of technology will also be a boost to countering car theft and it promises to be of particular benefit in the business car sector because the equipment is able to recognise any number of drivers and remember the ways they like the steering and seats to be adjusted.

It can even be programmed to remember if a particular driver likes to have a window down or the sunroof open.

“A significant bonus for families is that the equipment should also help put an end to the occasional tragedies that arise when young children get access to their parents’ cars.”

No date has been set for the launch of driver memory, but the technology is not expected to be costly because most of it will employ computers used elsewhere in the car.

“The biggest problems we’re facing in bringing this to market is reducing both the size and cost of the video camera and making it operate satisfactorily in a car. We are also still working to enable the camera to distinguish between people of similar appearance, such as identical twins,” said Weiss.

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