The Securicode Edition

On vehicles, keys, and margins 

Ryan McManus (RMM) is a friend of WITI dating back to our time at Barbarian Group. He’s a rare blend of creative instinct, industrial design plus a side of craftsman and bon vivant. He played a design role in the recent electric Ford launch. We’re pleased to have him back on the page. -Colin (CJN) 

Ryan here. Recently I had a pretty vigorous debate on Twitter about the merits of an often-overlooked feature on many Ford, Lincoln, and (historically) Mercury vehicles: a small 5-button numeric keypad on the driver’s door called Securicode. Specifically, the argument started when a commenter had called out the inclusion of a Securicode keypad on Ford’s future-facing all-electric F150 Lightning as a signal of how Ford’s thinking was hopelessly in the past. The deriders of the technology couldn’t fathom why, in an age of phone-as-a-key and biometric scanning, a simple keypad would still be useful.

A brief history, for context: introduced in 1980 on the Lincoln Continental, Securicode (originally called Keyless Entry back when the only other way to get into a car was a metal key) allows owners to set a 5-number code to unlock their car, open the trunk, and lock it again. In a nod to human-centered design, each key carries 2 digits to create a full 0-9 option—while the system itself only required 5 keys, designers knew people liked to use numbers like birthdates that were easy to remember. The feature has remained a low-cost option or standard equipment on Fords and Lincolns ever since, and while some models now feature hidden, capacitive key versions that blend invisibly into the door, others (including the aforementioned Lightning) persist with tried-and-true physical soft keys.

Photo via Ford

Why is this interesting?

To the casual observer, it’s understandable how the inclusion of something as digitally quaint as Securicode on an electric truck in 2021 might seem anachronistic. Yet this belies a misunderstanding both of the utility of the feature, and, in broader terms, the economics of evolutionary biology.

The first point needs to be understood in the context of the low-margin world of automotive design, where build costs in literal cents are debated vigorously. Even for a vehicle like the F150, whose total revenue would eclipse McDonald’s or Nike if it were a separate business, no feature is included that cannot justify its cost. Securicode is an option on some vehicles but standard on many others. It’s not mechanically complex, but it would certainly be cheaper and simpler to remove it altogether if customers didn’t continue to find it so useful.

The thing that Securicode introduces into the vehicle is the idea of both tiered permissions and variable access. Most vehicle access devices allow you total permissions—access to the cabin, trunk, or hood, but also access to drive, to park, to speed. Every car key is a master key. But Securicode introduces the idea of tiered permissions. It allows someone who knows the code access to the vehicle, but not the operation of the vehicle. Once you realize this, its utility becomes apparent. Securicode isn’t just a simple way to open the door to a truck, it’s more akin to an access role in business software—defining a specific set of capabilities for a non-driver. Take a job site, for example: having just the security code lets you allow other workers to get things from your truck—a tool, or a blueprint, or a sandwich—without granting them access to drive. Or, conversely, a fleet owner can keep the keys to a truck locked inside so that any worker with the key code can access and drive it without worrying about managing lost keys (modern key fobs can cost hundreds of dollars to replace, and the Securicode can easily be changed to protect against unwanted access later). In an ideal security system, three things control access: Something you are, something you have, and something you know. Securicode introduces the third into the mix.

Is it simplistic? Yes. Are other methods of access, like fingerprint or retinal or face detection scanners more secure, more modern? Of course. But this leads to my second point, which is how to think about the role of evolution in designing a system of traits over time. This was a lesson given to me during the design of the new F150 by Ford’s previous CEO, Jim Hackett. 

Hackett is an interesting figure—equally fascinated by the work of the Santa Fe Institute than anything coming from Detroit. He would look at designs for a new car or truck as if they were an evolutionary morphology of an organism, and with the same critical eye toward the introduction of novel functions. Did they replace something less functional? Did their inclusion require more glucose than the previous version? How did the new virtue help the organism thrive? Most physical products don’t have the benefit of existing over many iterations, but automobiles have existed over a long enough period (and both their competition and market forces are so unforgiving) that any virtue they adopt needs to justify its inclusion continually or it will be quickly abandoned.

And this is why Securicode has persisted for 40 years: in that intense ecosystem of automotive design, it is a highly useful, biologically cheap virtue of a ruthlessly evolved organism. Replacing its function with facial scanning would require cameras, power, compute power, data—a lot of “glucose,” in other words. While it may not be as elegant or as futuristic, Securicode is nearly as functional for a lot fewer calories. (RMM)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Ryan (RMM) 

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