Smartphones to Replace Car Keys

Car Connectivity Consortium Releases Digital Key Specification

Several high-end car-makers already support digital car key services, allowing drivers to use their smartphones as advanced car keys, but this is still an exclusive feature, far from widely available.

Last Wednesday, the Car Connectivity Consortium announced the release of the Digital Key Release 1.0 specification, a new standard for giving smartphones the ability to lock, unlock and start a car. And a lot more.

The consortium is a global, cross-industry organisation that develops specifications and solutions for smartphone and in-vehicle connectivity. It counts more than 70 members cutting across the auto and handset industries, and includes leading car-makers such as BMW, GM, Hyundai and Volkswagen, as well as phone-makers like Huawei, LG and Samsung. Component suppliers including Gemalto, NXP Semiconductors and Qualcomm are also members of the organisation.

By using near-field communication technology focused on the security of a smartphone-based virtual key system, the specification allows car manufacturers to securely transmit a digital key to smart devices. In addition to unlocking vehicles, the digital key will also let car owners start the engine and share access to their car through their smartphone.

There’s a convenience factor with this development. People will be able to use their smartphones to automatically lock, unlock and start their cars when within their proximity, like they do with key fobs. But the specification also offers more advanced key features similar to those found in current smart door locks.

Given the growth of the sharing economy and peer-to-peer behaviour, Digital Key goes on to support more advanced uses and could possibly spark the global vehicle-sharing market in much the same way that smart door locks have become a key enabler for Airbnb.

The standard enables car owners to share their keys as well as give temporary access to their vehicles, with the ability to digitally send someone a key and later retract it. Such a feature will allow them to rent their cars while the cars sit idle. It stands to make car sharing relatively easy and lower the cost of ownership for buyers who only drive their own vehicles periodically.

The potential for disruption is interesting. Like Uber shook up taxi services and Airbnb the hotel and real estate markets, smartphone-based digital car keys that can be remotely provisioned could disrupt the auto-rental business and others related to the car industry, for example, insurance.

It was always inevitable that these ubiquitous smart devices would become the car key of the future (see, for example, A Key Industry under Pressure). Smartphones and smartwatches always seem to find one more purpose.