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Smart Bike Locks: Are they a waste of money?

A while ago it seemed like smart bike locks were the future. They were everywhere. All over the internet anyway (well, in Kickstarter campaigns usually).

But you didn't see many being used on actual bikes in the street! And either I've stopped taking as much notice or there's less hype around futuristic bike locks these days.

Which means it's probably a good time to have a level headed look at what they've got to offer and whether they really are the future or a daft idea and a complete waste of money!

I've got admit I've always been a little be dubious of whether we need smart bike locks. There are so many things that work best when they're kept simple.

It always seemed to me that the more technology we add to a bike lock, the more chance there is of something going wrong. But maybe I'm just a Luddite.

Anyway let's have a look at some of the different smart locks, what problems they're trying to solve and how well they do that!

What is a Smart Bike Lock?

A smart lock is basically one that can communicate with your smart phone. Through an app. So a normal bike lock with an alarm is not a smart lock. To be "smart" it must connect to your phone.

Smart bike locks connect to phone apps

Smart locks connect to phone apps!

There are plenty to choose from. There are u-locks like the Lattis Ellipse (formerly known as the Skylock), which is one of the earliest smart locks I remember. And there are frame locks like the Linka and the Sentinel and the iLokIt. 

Those locks are still available. But there are loads of smart locks that disappeared as fast as they appeared. Like the Noke and the Grasp Lock. And the Bitlock and the Dog and Bone Locksmart. 

And this seems to be a common theme with smart locks. They turn up promising a brave new world of connectedness and convenience. And then, before you know what's going on, they're "no longer available".

Maybe there's a good reason for this transience? Maybe they're not really that good? Well, let's take a closer look at what they actually offer...

Keyless Operation

This seems to be the main selling point of a smart lock. It's certainly the one feature that all smart locks have.

But I don't see why it's so attractive. Most people will already be carrying their house keys when they're cycling around anyway. What's the problem with one extra key?

Unless their house lock is a smart lock too I suppose!

And if keylessness is so attractive, what's wrong with the current, low tech option (combination locks)?

But OK, let's assume keyless operation is what you want. How do you open a keyless lock? Well, there's usually 2 options: via the app or via a fingerprint.

Unlocking with the App

Your smart phone will have an app that connects to your bike lock when you're close by and will either lock or unlock your bike automatically via Bluetooth.

Smart bike locks can open automatically

Smart locks can open automatically wihen connected to the app

So you'll need your smart phone even if you won't need a key?!

Yes, you get the (dubious) convenience of not having to carry a key. And no, you won't have to worry about losing your key. But you will have to worry about carrying and losing your phone!

I just don't get it.

If you had a bike lock with an old style combination code, you wouldn't need a key or a phone. Although admittedly combination locks aren't as secure as regular keyed locks.

Unlocking with a Fingerprint

Locks like the Grasp Lock and the Ulac can be unlocked with your fingerprint. Pretty cool. And you can load multiple fingerprints onto each lock (for sharing access with friends). Also pretty cool.

The Grasp Lock opens with your fingerprint

The Grasp Lock opens with a fingerprint!

But how well does it work in the rain? It won't work with gloves. How easily will the fingerprint reader be damaged beyond use?

And of course this sort of feature needs power, which brings massive complications (as we'll see later).

Sharing is Caring

The clever phone app and the multiple fingerprint feature enable you to share access to your bike with other people who also have the app or loaded fingerprints.

This is admittedly a nice feature. But if you had a combination lock you could just as easily share the code with a friend.

Theft Alerts

Some smart locks will alert you via the app if a thief is trying to steal your bike. This is obviously a great idea. But in practice it's beset with problems.

For starters on nearly all smart locks the connection between the lock and the phone will be over Bluetooth. Which has a very limited range.

Usually this is up to 33 feet (10 m). Although a few of the locks feature Bluetooth 4.0 which has a longer range of up to 150 feet (50 m).

Noke bike lock theft alert

But will the theft alert reach your phone?

So with regular Bluetooth your connection will be very limited. In fact you will usually need to be within sight of your bike.

Essentially you'll only receive theft alerts if you're already very close to your bike. So not in the cinema, the spots center, the shopping center or mall. Probably not even when you're asleep at home with your bike outside.

The other issue is the same problem as regular alarmed bike locks suffer from: how to get the sensitivity right.

What I mean is how can the lock differentiate between innocent jockling in a busy bike rack and a genuine attempt to steal your bike?

If the lock is too sensitive you'll get loads of false alarms. If it's not sensitive enough you won't receive an alert until it's too late (if at all).

Location Services and GPS

As someone who has completely forgotten where they left their bike on several occasions a location service is actually quite attractive.

But again, in most cases this feature will be quite limited. When you lock your bike the app will record where it is and you'll be able to see where you left it from wherever you are.

But it doesn't show its current "live" location unless you're within Bluetooth range. So for example if the bike is stolen and moved and you're out of Bluetooth range your app will still show the bike at the location you left it.

Some smart bike locks have GPS

Some smart bike locks have GPS

Unless of course you've got GPS. If you've got GPS then you'll be able to see the current location of your bike from wherever you (and your bike) are.

But GPS requires a SIM card and uses up a lot of battery charge and costs a subscription fee. And as far as I can tell the only smart lock offering GPS is iLockit.

More importantly why would you even want GPS in the lock? There's a good chance a thief will discard a defeated lock as soon as they can (if they don't leave it at the scene of the crime).

Other features

Some smart locks have alarms. But these will suffer from the same sensitivity issues as the theft alerts. And if you want an alarmed lock it doesn't have to be "smart". There are plenty of normal locks with alarms.

And I've seen some smart locks that will monitor how fast you're cycling and warn you if you're going to fast. Or even automatically send SMS message to your phone contacts if you have an accident.

But are these power dependent features really worth the compromises that supporting these features necessitates?

Because what strikes me is how many of the "features" that these smart locks celebrate aren't fundamentally desirable in themselves. They're simply necessary to facilitate the main selling point of the lock: the connection to the phone app.

No one really wants a bile lock with solar charging. Or usb charging. Or back up access. Or removable batteries. Or jump start options. Or secondary keypads. 

These are all "features" that are necessary to deal with the power requirements of a lock that talks to your phone (and to ensure the lock still functions if (when) that communication fails).

And why do we want a lock that talks to our phone? So we don't need to carry a key. Yeah, OK.

Security Ratings

The other weird thing is that none of these smart locks (apart from the Linka) ever seem to be tested and rated by independent security organisations like Sold Secure or ART.

So we're never really sure how good they are at their primary job: preventing a thief from stealing our bikes!

Is this because they're not very secure? Or because the price to security ratio will inevitably seem disappointing?

The Grasp Lock's innovative design

The Grasp Lock: innovative but how secure? 

I mean, I really like the evolutionary way that the Grasp Lock works as it make it so much easier to lock your bike up. But does it compromise the security of the lock? We just don't know.

The Future?

So I totally accept that this article might be overly negative! That the smart locks we've seen so far are simply the first wave.

And of course you can't have the second (and genuinely useful) wave of smart locks without the first wave testing the water, discovering issues that need to be addressed.

The Sentinel for example will be a frame lock with a permanent internet connection, 4 months of battery life, RFID unlock, sharing, track and trace, a host of other features and a security rating from ART.

I can see the attraction. Plus of course these type of locks really come into their own when their used to secure a fleet of bikes (in bike share schemes).

So yeah, they probably are the future. And of course most of the companies making these locks are one man outfits, working with small budgets, trying to disrupt the market. And this should be encouraged and supported!

I just don't think their ready for personal use yet.

I read a few of the reviews of the smart locks that were available on Amazon. And I was struck by two things:

Firstly, several reviewers said that because they worked in tech themselves, they wanted a lock that used tech. Tech for the sake of it. Not to solve specific problem? That doesn't make sense to me.

Secondly many reviewers said the connectivity (which is the fundamental essence of a smart lock) was unreliable. So the supposed convenience became highly inconvenient.

Once we have smart locks are able to solve genuine problems in a reliable way I'll be all in. But until then, I'm going to stick to my stupid lock with a key.

But I would love to be proved wrong on this. I never even used one! If you use a smart lock on a daily basis and you love it, tell us why in the comments...

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