Trends and developments in vehicle access control

Access control for vehicles is as old as RFID based access control in general. The introduction of magnetic stripe swipe cards, and later contactless RFID badges in the early eighties have initiated the birth of the current access control industry. Ever since those early days manufacturers, integrators and clients have also pondered over the best way to control vehicle access to estates, sites and parking area’s. The predominant technology used for vehicle access in the last decade is without doubt microwave technology: 2,45 GHz readers identify cars and other vehicles that are equipped with semi-active or active badges. Supporting reading distances of over 10 meters, this technology provides for a convenient and resilient way of vehicular access control.

But after a decade without groundbreaking innovation it seems that change is upon us. New technology is knocking at our door, challenging us to rethink our solutions for convenient and secure vehicle identification. But before we further explore the future, it might be wise to first look at today’s realm.

Current practice

Currently, when a security manager or facility manager is thinking about controlling access to his estate for vehicles, he or she will basically have to choose between conventional prox technology or the microwave alternative. Manufacturers of prox cards and readers, especially those operating in the 120-125 kHz frequency, have found ways to extend the reading distance of the card technology they deploy. Through enhancement of the reader or the tags used, a reading distance of around 1 meter has been reached, thus providing a fairly convenient way for drivers to present badges at the outer perimeter. The good thing about this solution is that the same prox cards are used to provide people with access to the building, thus limiting the extra investment needed for vehicular access control when an access control system already is in place. Only one card type needs to be distributed and administered.

But utilising prox technology also has a few downsides namely convenience. How many of us have had moments when we are hanging out of our car window struggling to properly position an access control badge so that an impressive looking card reader can arrogantly decide that we have gone through enough hardship to allow or deny us access?

Another downside is that in this scenario we are not really identifying vehicles, we are only identifying one person sitting in that particular vehicle. Clients looking for convenient vehicular access control therefore very often prefer the use of the earlier mentioned microwave readers that are supplied by a handful of specialised manufacturers. Semi actives tags that are positioned behind the windscreen or at other locations at the vehicle are read by readers without the need for physical strain on the driver. Tags that are physically and logically linked to the vehicle enable for a very convenient and secure way to access the secured site.

Figure 1: convient reading distance

Now let’s have a look at some of the current trends and developments that are finally reshaping the vehicle identification industry and that provide security managers with more choice and more tools to establish a safe and secure environment for their employers.

Knowing who is at the gate

The story of the Trojan Horse holds a relevant message even today. For real security and peace of mind, you must not only identify an approaching vehicle, but also the driver inside. Identifying only the vehicle rather than the driver could encourage theft of a vehicle to access your facilities, making the vehicle a “Trojan Horse” by giving automated access to what is perceived as an authorized vehicle.

The ever increasing need for a simple way to track the driver credential and potentially the vehicle identification as a lock & key combination, has paved the way for a new philosophy which dictates that a vehicle can never be left with an active AVI access credential present unless occupied by an authorized driver.

A Driver Based AVI tag is made up two components: an in-vehicle card reader/transmitter and a personnel credential, such as contactless building access card. The in-vehicle reader will read the building access card and “Boost” the signal to an external reader at ranges up to 33 feet (11 Meters), which will allow plenty of time for the back end security controller to activate the barrier or gate opening prior to the time the vehicle arrives. The Booster device will in effect act as the lock and the building access card as the key. In some cases the Booster will contain its own embedded Vehicle ID, which allows the back end the ability to immediately match the right driver with the right vehicle.

Removal of the Driver ID is ensured as this credential is required for building access once the driver leaves his vehicle, leaving only the Booster in the vehicle, which in itself cannot activate the barrier or gate opening. Long Range Driver based AVI systems are rapidly finding their way into applications where positive driver identification must be established without bringing the vehicle to a stop. The applications are many but include areas such as Military Bases, Utility Companies, Corporate and Educational Campuses, Police, Fire and other installations where vehicles must be assigned to a specific driver such as Company service vehicles.

UHF: The missing option

The choice between prox and microwave technology is a clear one. To exaggerate a little: it is the option between a low end and cheaper solution and a high end solution that requires some extra effort because semi-active tags need to be implemented and made part of the security equation. Although most people recognise the added value of providing more convenient vehicle access, not everyone is in the position to make that extra effort or to do that extra investment. Currently there really is nothing in the middle of sufficient quality and practical value to provide customers with an extra alternative.

This recently has changed with the introduction of UHF in the automatic vehicle identification arena. Ultra High Frequency (800-900 MHz) has been used in the world of logistics for many years to track and trace parcels and products that are finding their way through the production and distribution processes. The very nice thing about this technology is that it supports reading distances of several meters using relatively inexpensive passive badges (without batteries). Although being a slightly less robust technology when compared to microwave systems, the related investment is greatly reduced, making it a very attractive alternative.

UHF as a third alternative

Figure 2: UHF as a third alternative

The nice thing about UHF tags is that they come in the shape of ISO cards as well. Even combi cards (combining prox cards and smart cards with UHF) are available. Considering UHF cards for both vehicle access and person access is now a realistic option if there are no specific requirements for advanced encryption of card contents. UHF cards are relatively cheap and can support handsfree access requirements significantly better than other card technologies. And even better: UHF tags are publically available in many forms through a large number of suppliers.

If it comes to providing a resilient, secure and convenient solution for vehicular access, microwave platforms that combine vehicle with driver based identification are still unlevelled, but for those many situations where the extra effort to be made is just out of reach, UHF can provide a flexible and attractive alternative. Access to company car parks, parking lots with pre-paid or licensed permits, establishing zones in parking garages, handsfree access inside buildings: may applications come to mind when the benefits of UHF are given some thought.

What about ANPR?

Automatic Number Plate Recognition has gained much popularity over the previous years amongst people looking for a very flexible and easily maintained vehicular access control or vehicle identification system. ANPR camera’s can be connected to access control systems where the license plate number is easily registered.

The nice thing about ANPR is that there are no tags that need to be distributed. Cars usually are equipped with license plates. If it comes to robustness and security, microwave and UHF are better options. Copying license plates is not too difficult and there is no international common standard for license plates which makes the automatic recognition sometimes a challenge. Another disadvantage of ANPR is that there are many vehicles that do not have license plates, like trains and numerous vehicles at airports and other specific estates.

One controller to rule them all

It seems like perimeter security is getting more and more attention. The need to secure the outer perimeter of a site seems logical. Why spend money on building access management while ignoring the threats that may come in through common organisational parking facilities. This article has shown there are already numerous ways to identify vehicles and people and there is even more identification technology that has not been discussed.

Figure 3: mix and match perimeter  security solution

Most perimeter security solutions will consist of a blend of readers and sensors that are somehow linked together. A variety of management systems or access control systems combined with a variety of controllers are used to link those reader and sensor inputs to gates, barriers and bollards that will physically allow or deny vehicle access. These mix and match solutions will try and combine the benefits of these different types of identification technology. Prox readers, ANPR and microwave systems are often combined into one system. Although providing a wealth of functionality these types of installations very often result in messy setups that are difficult to maintain and impossible to administer.

Thankfully several manufacturers of access control systems have acknowledged this and have developed purpose built controllers with sufficient inputs and outputs that can easily be configured and linked to the access control or parking management system. These so called vehicle management controllers are proof of the phase shift that is currently going on in vehicular access management. An exciting future is awaiting us!