The Future of Car Keys? Smartphone Apps, Maybe

IT’S not fun getting into a car when the interior is 130 degrees, but that’s a typical problem during the summer for those who live in a city like Phoenix, where outside temperatures can regularly soar well past 100.

But Sean O’Gorman never needs to endure a furnacelike cabin. As an owner of a Tesla Model S, he opens an iPhone app a few minutes before he gets into the car and remotely starts his air-conditioner.

Mr. O’Gorman, 32, a software product manager, can also use the app to do things that previously only a physical key could do, and more: Start the engine, unlock the doors, turn on the heat and monitor the battery.

Tesla is not alone in offering those sorts of options; BMW, General Motors and Volvo, among other manufacturers, offer apps that perform similar functions.

They are just the latest step in the evolution of the car key away from the standard metal shaft used for decades, and still often used today, to unlock and start cars.

Now, car keys — or key fobs, as they are also known — include chips to prevent theft, cannot be duplicated at the local locksmith and often never have to be removed from pockets.

But despite the advances, it will be a while, if ever, before smartphone apps entirely replace keys that drivers carry around. Too many problems exist — like a slow data network or a dead phone battery — to rely on smartphones alone, experts say.

“The physical key will be with us for years to come,” said Mark Baker, director of engineering for ZF TRW, a manufacturer of automobile systems.

That’s because customers are purchasing cars with so-called PEPS, or Passive Entry, Passive Start capabilities. Rather than needing to pull out a key from one’s pocket or purse, the key sends a signal to the car that it’s nearby, and the car creates a digital “handshake” with the authorized key. Touching the door’s handle unlocks it, and the car is started by pushing a button. The car cannot be locked if the key is left in the car.

“This type of key is a huge convenience for drivers,” said Jeff J. Owens, chief technology officer for Delphi, another supplier of automotive systems. “A watch or phone used instead must offer more than today’s key.”

In some ways, they offer less, by increasing the complexity of operating a vehicle. In Tesla’s case, one needs to open the app and then enter a PIN to start the car or unlock the doors.

Using the Internet to transfer vehicle starting or unlocking information, while useful in an emergency, “is not a viable way forward,” said David Green, market development director at Volvo.

Slow network traffic can cause the unlocking command take up to a minute, Mr. Green said. “This is a regression from today’s keys.”

If a cellphone’s battery dies, or there is no data signal available to send an unlocking or engine start command to the car, the driver would be stranded.

And then there’s cost. Someone will have to pay for the data that will be needed to transfer information from the smartphone to the car, and it most likely will be the driver, who will have to tap into a monthly data subscription plan.

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Using a smartphone as a virtual key also presents unsolved security and privacy concerns. There is also the challenge of how to transfer car activation capabilities to a new owner’s smartphone if the car is sold.

Mr. O’Gorman has found a way to mitigate these problems: Most of the time, he still carries around Tesla’s key fob.

“If you only replace a key with a smartphone, that’s not terribly interesting,” said Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer at G.M. “Today’s key does a great job.”

Still, keys will evolve, and smartphones are increasingly part of the equation.

Hakan Kostepen, the executive director for product planning strategy for Panasonic Automotive Systems, said he believed that keys would eventually carry a specific driver’s information within them, so that an individual’s preferences for seating position, favorite audio stations and locations could be transferred across vehicles, even to rental cars.

A smartphone could work in conjunction with that key. For example, the phone can track a driver’s location, and then, if the driver agrees, present information about or opportunities near that location.

If a person who owns a high-end vehicle enters a mall, a phone could offer recommendations for stores and deals specific to that person, and the car manufacturer would get a piece of the action for any sale. To prevent someone from being bombarded with ads, the driver’s previous purchases in specific stores could correlate to any on-screen ads.

“The key needs a new name,” Mr. Kostepen said. “It’s really a lifestyle token.”

But not everyone is so sanguine about this approach. “I have seen scenarios in which drivers are offered coupons,” said Ron Montoya, the consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, the automotive website. “It’s certainly feasible, but a lot of people might find this intrusive.”

Advanced digital keys — whether a physical key or a smartphone app — could also be authorized for one-time use, allowing other people to enter vehicles but locking them out if they tried to do so again.

Both Audi and Volvo are experimenting with systems that allow groceries and packages to be delivered to the trunks of cars, with the owner notified of each entry. Car keys could also be authorized and then de-authorized for rental car drivers, Mr. Green noted.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, a car sits there doing nothing,” Mr. Green said. “There are huge possibilities when keys are digital.”

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