Mobile phone as a car key – everything you must know about it

The smartphone is increasingly taking over the function of the car key. In 2021, three more manufacturers will add the new feature as part of the system’s features, but this involves risks.

Of course, car dealers will not let the traditional ritual of handing over the keys when buying a new car disappear. However, after the ceremony, the key may be forgotten in the drawer with the vehicle registration documents. The ambition of the automobile industry is to remove the use of the classic car key from the daily life of the driver and replace it with a smartphone that takes its place over time.

The idea comes from Japan, in 2008 Nissan and Sharp presented the first prototypes, at that time there was not much interest in the subject: the first iPhone was introduced only in 2007, and smartphones were still very new. Today smartphones are part of everyday life and manufacturers understand that most new car buyers have at least one smartphone device in their possession.
The advantages: unlike the physical keys, you don’t have to assign a digital key to only one person at a time.

The car owner can send permission to unlock the car to any mobile phone. Permission can be granted permanently or temporarily, to all functions or only to some of them. This allows service providers, for example, to park the car. Car rental companies use this to hand over the car to customers without a key. The industry is also planning new business models such as a smart home integrated with mobility options and therefore, of course, reducing the demand for car keys.

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High security requirements

But to be successful, the technology must first be accepted by customers. When you combine the key fob with a smartphone, the number of possible risks increases. Unlike most car keys, cell phones are usually online and therefore vulnerable to malware. What happens when the phone resets? Physical interventions, such as the theft of the mobile phone, also threaten the security of the system.

Information security is therefore the focus of the leading keys companies. The developers benefit from the fact that modern smartphones are already equipped with advanced security technologies such as a fingerprint scanner or facial recognition. The most important things are preventing unauthorized copying, modification and deletion of keys, as well as unauthorized creation of new keys or interception of data transmissions. In case of selling the vehicle the new owner must be able to delete all existing permissions.

In order to meet these safety requirements and reduce costs, the automotive and technology industries have been working with a uniform standard since the summer of 2016. However, all systems available until mid-2018 are individual solutions, some of which were in further proprietary development.

NFC is becoming a standard

Modern smartphones are already basically ready for opening cars: the chip needed for “zero range communication” (NFC) is found in most smartphones and allows data to be transferred between devices over short distances. Car manufacturers install the equivalent of a chip in a car’s door handle. Customers of car sharing programs have been familiar with the principle for a long time: in services like Share Now, they save, open and lock the rented car without a key, but only with the app. The difference: this technology works on the cellular network, so the car sharing system does not work in underground parking lots or areas without network coverage.

When using NFC, everything changes. To successfully use it, the driver must install an application from the vehicle manufacturer and register his smartphone in the vehicle. New vehicle models already have the necessary connection to the cellular network, required by the mandatory emergency eCall standard. After registering the smartphone, the digital key works without internet. The car then recognizes the assigned NFC chip even when the cell phone battery is almost empty. If the chip is in the car, the technology allows the car to be started like a radio key.

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These are the manufacturers that insert digital car keys

Manufacturers such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes have NFC keys on offer, but they have developed some of their technology systems themselves. For example, BMW’s system only works with Apple’s iPhone. In early 2020, Mercedes replaced the “digital vehicle key”, which originally worked through the smartphone, to an NFC sticker. These stickers can (but really do not have to) be stuck to the mobile phone.

Large manufacturers such as Ford and Hyundai have so far only offered systems based on the cellular network. Tesla uses Bluetooth as a solution in the Model 3 but it is only a convenience function. Tesla drivers should keep the physical key to them and carry it with them in any case, otherwise it will not be possible to open and start the car in the event of a malfunction in the application.

Will the digital key replace the standard car key?

In 2021, 3 other major automakers are set to join the growing trend, These systems are then based on the “digital key” device. Even with few companies offering NFC keys at the moment: other manufacturers will follow suit. Time will tell if the classic key is over. Many customers, are very cautious when it comes to mobile phone-based payments without the use of cash.

Turn your smartphone into a car key

Is it possible to assemble the function retrospectively, can the mobile phone then be converted into a car key? Despite the complex security issues, many vendors have developed solutions for them. However, by fairly simple means. There are some devices that remains in the car, connected to the 12 volt network of the car battery. The device creates the connection to the mobile phone through the cellular network. Inside the device is the original car key in a space adjusted with great precision with the help of a 3D printer. If the user activates the “Open” function on the mobile phone, the box presses the corresponding button on the key – mechanically.

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