Smartphone vs. the Car Key

Are the days of the physical car key numbered?

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Are the days of the physical car key numbered?

It seems as though this very well may be the case as the proliferation of smartphone technology continues to increase. According to Michael Crane, vice president, Business Unit Body & Security for the Americas, Continental (continental-corporation.com), 68 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, which is up from 35 percent in 2011. What’s more, Crane notes that there are 210-million connected cars on the road today, and that number is expected to more than double by 2021. And looking to the realm of the “Internet of Things”—where “things” are connected to other “things,” like smartphones—Crane says that there will be more than 50-billion connected objects by 2020.

All of which is to say that given the proliferation of connectivity, things like physical keys may give way to communications-enabled approaches, be it Bluetooth Low Energy* (BLE)-based or near-field communications (NFC).

Continental knows more than a little something about getting into vehicles without keys, as it was the pioneer, back in 1998, with the first passive start and entry system (PASE), the system that allows the “key” (or fob) to work without being held in the driver’s hand. Today it produces more than six million PASE systems per year as well as some nine million remote keyless entry (RKE) systems.

According to Mauricio Hernandez-Distancia, director of Body & Security R&D for Continental North America, they are developing new ways for drivers to access their vehicles. In the now-familiar PASE approach, the car and the fob communicate with each other via RF (radio frequency) and LF (low frequency).

But they are looking at two new methods. One uses RF and LF from the fob, but the fob communicates to a smartphone with BLE or NFC. This communication arrangement allows bi-directional communication via the fob, described as a “gateway key,” between the car and the operator’s smartphone. An advantage here over the fob alone is the ability for vehicle status (e.g., amount of gas in the tank; tire pressure) to be sent to the phone.

The step beyond that is what Hernandez-Distancia calls “Continental Smart Access,” which is hands-free and fob-free. Here, there is a backend system (think cloud-based) that communicates with the driver’s smartphone, providing encrypted information that is recognized by the vehicle that allows functions to occur, from doors to be unlocked to the start button to be activated. Communications between the phone and the car take place via BLE or NFC.

Continental has also developed what it calls its “Multifunctional Smart Device Terminal” for vehicles, which not only connects the smartphone wirelessly to the vehicle’s antennas, but provides wireless charging capability. After all, if you’re using your phone as your key, you certainly want to make sure that all of that social media won’t drain your phone’s battery.

While there are no production applications right now (they’re coming soon, Crane says, to vehicles from both the U.S. and Europe), Continental is using virtual keys for a car-sharing initiative that it has with a Belgian company, D’leteren, called “OTA keys.” Explains Continental’s Don Finney, users download an app (from the Apple App Store or Google play), and use it to reserve a vehicle. OTA keys then sends an encrypted data record to the smartphone that is communicated to the particular vehicle via NFC or BLE. The code is time limited so that the “key” won’t work after the driver is done with the car.

Notably, this system can be used with existing vehicles (there are fleets in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands right now), as there is a connector that is plugged into a vehicle’s OBD II port (there is also a controller about the size of two cell phones stacked connected to the connector with a wire).

Of course, while the people at Continental don’t expect keys to go away entirely, as more and more OEMs remove the cylinders from the column or the IP and replace them with pushbuttons (and realize that many vehicles are already without key cylinders on their exteriors), those six-thousand year old tools may give way to binary code.—GSV

*Bluetooth Low Energy? It is also known as “Bluetooth Smart” and “Version 4.0+.” It operates with extremely low power consumption in part because it communicates only as needed. It does provide high security: 128-bit AES data encryption.