Digital Car Keys Are Coming Soon to Android

Digital Car Keys Are Coming Soon to Android
It's the only screenshot we have of Android's Digital Car Key ability, and it seems we'll see it as soon as the Pixel 6 gets launched. (Image: Google)

Google’s Pixel 6 smartphone is amassing a ton of buzz over its design and features ahead of next week’s event, but the launch might also bring the official debut of Android’s digital car key support.

Though we’ve known about digital car keys being baked into Android 12 since the beta launched, an update to Google Play services discovered by XDA Developers indicates the ability to add your car key to your phone is just around the corner. There are multiple lines of code included in the update that appear to be related, including lines of code that refer to NFC use for unlocking a car.

The code also hints that the feature will have a limited rollout at first. That’s to be expected, considering Google tends to launch new abilities within select markets before pushing them out everywhere else.

Once the digital car key feature starts rolling out, users will start to see prompts for setting it up. You’ll have to install a specific digital car key service, in addition to setting up a password-protected lock screen before you can use it, with credentials stored in Google Pay.

Google announced it was adopting digital car keys back at Google I/O when it expanded its proprietary Fast Pair functionality, which uses Bluetooth Low Energy to quickly find previously paired devices, though the company didn’t say when we could expect to actually use digital car keys. Google worked with car manufacturers to enable the digital key through UWB (ultra-wideband) tech and NFC. Ultra-wideband, which can operate at up to 100 feet, is still being added to more smartphones and premium vehicle models, while NFC has a lower range and requires you to tap your phone on a physical access point. It’s like the difference between having a wireless keyfob to unlock a car from a distance and a physical metal car key.

There are rumblings that Google’s Oct. 19 launch event for the Pixel 6 will be the official launch of the digital car key ability. It seems most likely Google’s premium model, the Pixel 6 Pro, will be the one to include support for the UWB unlocking mechanism.

Google and Apple have long been teasing the ability to unlock your car using just a smartphone, and it seems closer than ever before. While the UWB technology that enables it remains limited to a handful of Android devices, Apple’s been bundling it in since the iPhone 11. The vehicle support is also limited, with Google only naming BMW as a partner (though that could change). And while digital car keys aren’t perfect replacements for physical ones, this seems the first serious indicator that we’ll soon be able to leave the house with just a smartphone and nothing else — for better or worse.