Virtual Car Keys Are Your Smartphone

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 06, 2016

Just what you need in your life: virtual car keys. Say what? In the frighteningly near future, car keys will become obsolete, and older sports fans will have nothing to jingle in their pockets as they discuss the prospects of the Yankees or Red Sox with their cronies.

Smartphones are great, but to replace car keys? What if the battery dies? Call roadside assistance but, whoops--the phone battery's dead. (Continental)

The venerable car key, with us since near the dawn of the automobile, is migrating to your already overburdened smartphone via an encrypted app. Auto supplier Continental has been working on this technology since 2008, and so far its primary use is in car-sharing fleets. You use the app to unlock, say, your Zipcar, start it and drive off.

But we’re not too far off from making virtual keys the standard for all cars. It’s just the next step in empowering the smartphone for every aspect of our lives. Volvo said earlier this year that it wants to get out of the key business, and introduce the virtual variety as early as next year. According to Britain’s Autocar:

The [Volvo] car key will be replaced with a Bluetooth-enabled digital virtual key that can be downloaded into a smartphone app. The app will be available on iOS, Android and Windows devices and replicates typical key functions such as locking, unlocking and boot [trunk] release. It also allows drivers to start the car’s engine remotely.

Volvo is planning to introduce virtual keys as early as next year. (Volvo)

Another function that’s possible with virtual keys is “lending” access to a car to a friend, with one-time availability at a specific time and for a specific duration. You’ll probably be able to text the key to someone else, either with time limitations or not.

Of course, all this raises obvious questions—what if you lose your phone? Or the battery dies? Are you going to get stranded? Of course, you could have a backup “analog” key hidden in a little magnetic box or kept in your pocket, but doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose? Automakers are talking about roadside assistance as the backup, but if your phone is dead (and you don’t have a GM vehicle with Onstar) you’d be out of luck.

And what about hacking? Today’s electronic thieves are pretty savvy, and they're already stealing cars via coding. Aren’t they going to get busy making phone-based virtual skeleton keys? Volvo’s answer is to split the encrypted key so both the car itself and the phone app “own” part of the combination to unlock the car.

Are we already asking smart phones to do too much? (Continental)

I’m OK with the status quo; I think remote keyless entry is one of the great inventions of mankind, up there with the pyramids. I’ve always hated fumbling for keys as I’m heading out to the car. Now I leave the keys in my pocket, and either the car unlocks as I approach it or I push the button on the door handle. Then I use the start button, and I'm off.

The only drawback I know of to these systems is in the car handoff. Let’s say you’re sharing your car with your partner, and you hand the vehicle off in the driveway. They drive away but, oops, the keys are still in your pocket. Beeping and alarming messages appear on the screen, and you won’t be able to restart. So it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. It's hard to see how a phone could improve on this system.

Virtual keys are ideal for car rental fleets, school bus operators and others where keeping track of ignition keys must be a real headache. But for you and me, it’s probably not addressing a major life inconvenience.

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