The Age Of The Digital Car Key Is Finally Upon Us

The Age Of The Digital Car Key Is Finally Upon Us

The idea of using your phone or smartwatch as a car key has been kicking around for a while, and some vehicles — usually more expensive ones — are already outfitted to let you do it. However, the implementation has been wildly inconsistent across car brands, and sometimes even require certain phone models to work. Up until recently, the necessary software wasn’t even prebuilt into devices, meaning you’d need a third-party app to lock and unlock your car.

That’s all changing though. At Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference last summer, it introduced a new Car Keys protocol that embedded the feature into iOS’ Wallet app, the same place your credit cards are stored. However, to date the company has partnered only with BMW to roll it out.

Today, Samsung unveiled its new Galaxy S21 range of smartphones, and, like Apple, it’s also baking digital key hardware and software right into its phones. Unlike Apple, the Korean tech giant has announced collaborations with Ford, Genesis and Audi, as well as BMW, to bring the feature to more makes and models “in the near future.”

It’s not just a willingness to work together that’s making digital car keys more accessible — hardware is also playing a role. Previously, digital keys were fully reliant on a technology called near-field communication, or NFC. NFC is how you’re able to pay for things by tapping your phone at a checkout terminal; it’s also the basis behind those tags you can buy and stick around your home so that, for example, when you set your phone down on your nightstand, it automatically sets an alarm.

NFC’s a fantastically simple and practical technology, but it requires almost physical contact to work. Lots of the time, this is good — you don’t want to inadvertently pay for someone else’s shampoo when you’re in the checkout line at Target. However, a newer protocol, called ultra wideband (UWB), improves upon NFC by offering extremely location-precise communication over short distances. Automakers and tech companies reckon that makes it a good fit for car door unlocking.

At Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event today where it showed off its new phone, Samsung’s Kevin Chung described how unlocking with UWB will play out. “You’ll be able to unlock your car door with your phone,” Chung said. “The door will unlock when you reach it — no sooner, no later.”

In other words, if your phone is in your bag or pocket, you won’t have to take it out and tap it to the handle to get inside. At the same time, you can rest assured your car won’t unlock when you’re half a parking lot away, either.

Operating system-level digital key integration will allow you to share your key with friends and family when needed, and Chung pointed out this will extend to users of all phones “regardless of brand or platform.” That last point is huge and signals an industry-wide shift toward common practices for this feature, which will help it reach more cars, more devices and ultimately, more people.

Apple and Samsung happen to be part of a body called the Car Connectivity Consortium, along with Hyundai, General Motors and Volkswagen, among other car manufacturers. The consortium has developed a standard, called Digital Key 3.0, that cements the use of UWB, NFC and Bluetooth low-energy for digital keys across all makes and models of gadgets and cars.

UWB chips can be found in a growing number of popular phones, including the iPhone 12 and iPhone 11 series and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, in addition to the S21 range already mentioned. However, NFC is still the basis for current digital keys, because UWB is still pretty new on the scene.

BMW is one of the carmakers leading the shift to UWB. It confirmed yesterday that the BMW iX will introduce the next-generation key tech when it goes on sale at the end of the year. According to the company, it’ll not only be more convenient than NFC-based digital keys, but more secure as well:

[UWB] is a short-range, high-bandwidth digital radio technology that is characterised by an exceptionally precise localisation with the greatest possible security. UWB’s precision also ensures that relay attacks, where the radio signal is jammed or intercepted, are not possible.

The promise of being able to use your phone as a car key has been a long time coming, and it’s already arrived for a lucky few. But now that the two biggest phone makers in the world are fully on board, and automakers are working with them to mint a common standard, it might finally catch on for the rest of us.