By on October 12, 2017

2018 Chevrolet Tahoe LS - Image: Chevrolet

A standard part of the dealership test drive experience involves the salesperson grabbing the key to the car in question out of a lockbox, then accompanying the customer on the drive. A new patent filing suggests General Motors may be looking for a way to give customers access to the car without requiring a salesperson to dig through a box of keys.

GM appears to be working on a patent that would allow customers to have a temporary digital key granted to them in order to gain access to a vehicle they want to test drive.

The system would work like this: Interested customer applies for the key, the dealer verifies the buyer’s interest and identity, dealer approves the test drive and monitors it. If the customer doesn’t want to buy the car, the dealer can revoke the digital key authentication, and it can also do the same to a prior key holder if the vehicle is used and someone other than the first title holder buys it.


It’s unclear what happens if the car is new and the customer is the first buyer – do they get a digital key to use while they own the car or a physical key fob like they would now? Or both? (A digital key could be useful to someone who loses or forgets a key fob – like those key pads on some Ford/Lincoln vehicles that allow entry to their owners.)

The system would make online car buying easier. Imagine if you could build and spec the car you wanted online and then use a digital key to test drive it – you’d minimize interaction with salespeople at your local dealer. You’d have the digital key, you’d show up, you’d test drive the car, and then if you decided to buy it, you’d either be whisked into the finance office or you could fill out all your documentation online while the car is prepped.

That doesn’t mean salespeople will be out of work – a human would still need to shepherd the process and be ready to answer questions – but it does mean that perhaps some of the more stressful interactions between customer and sales person can be cut, thus making the process more pleasant for all involved.

There’s also a level of security involved here. Dealers could stop anyone who tried to turn a test drive into a car theft, or to keep prospective buyers from taking advantage of an extended take-home test drive and extending it too long.

Not to mention the fact it cuts down on the cost of remaking lost keys, or the time wasted trying to track down a lost key while a customer waits impatiently. Your author once worked in the service department of a dealership and, even with fingerprint IDs and passwords protecting the key drawer, the system didn’t always work. Employees often misplaced keys or forgot to return them, thus leaving salespeople to scramble to find the key fob to a car that a customer wanted to drive. And the key box took up a decent chunk of floor space.

Okay, fine, there will still need to be space for a key drawer even if this system works – at least, as long as physical key fobs still exist. But imagine how much smoother the buying process will work if the physical keys stay in one place until the sale is complete.

There may be service applications, as well. A customer leaving his or her vehicle for work wouldn’t have to leave their keys when a temporary digital key could be used. A digital key could also be used to limit and/or monitor bad behavior by unscrupulous techs and service advisors.

It’s just a patent, for now, but it’s an intriguing one.

Hat tip to our own Bozi Tatarevic for once again digging up some very interesting docs.

[Images: General Motors, U.S. Patent Office]

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17 Comments on “GM to Patent Temporary Digital Key?...”

  • avatar

    [Hacker salivating intensifies]

    • 0 avatar

      Meh, lots of cars can already be remote locked/unlocked and/or started from a smart phone app. This is just a progression of that technology. In other words, the potential for hackers to access the vehicle remotely is already there. People were stealing Jeeps with remote access by hacking into the vehicle system at one point, however it isn’t an epidemic yet.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s another gateway in, and this has just as much potential, if not more, for entry and operation, as that what the system is designed to do.
        Digital key spoofing is a very legitimate concern.

  • avatar

    Its seems to me the more logical (and likely) use is that the dealer would provide each of their salesman with a key. Then they just go over to the computer and get the key to work for any specific vehicle on the lot when a customer wants to take a closer work, instead of having to go dig through where they keep the keys for the specific key to the specific vehicle of interest.

    Then as you said they can have extra keys for extended test drives, or if they let someone test drive without the salesguy who decides to steal the vehicle or something.

    • 0 avatar

      Or what if the key is a “proximity key” – i.e. push button start and the sales-lackey is just retrieving a fob to allow all test drive/purchase scenarios outlined above?

  • avatar

    This seems like a good idea that would be easy and cheap to implement. The Tesla Model 3 is said to do without keys completely, using a smartphone app instead. My neighborhood is full of rental homes that are unlocked electronically for do it yourself showings.

  • avatar

    This would be great for rental cars, especially those operations that insist on lashing the 2 fobs together.

  • avatar

    If it’s anything like hotel room keys, it won’t work and I will have to go back down to the front desk so they can accuse me of demagnetizing it. Yeah, because I had to stop off and get an MRI done on the way to my room. And when I finally get into the room I will find a bar of soap, but no shampoo. Oh, but there is a shower cap, so I actually don’t need to bother washing my hair. Yeah, nice job, GM. This is a grate idea.

    • 0 avatar

      ” If it’s anything like hotel room keys…”

      Read it again (or for the first time). It isn’t anything whatsoever like hotel keys (cards).

      This isn’t a card with a magnetic strip, its a wireless digital key, authorized remotely. There is no physical key (or card) to be used in this instance, so it has 0% chance of being “lost” or “damaged”.

      Yeah, nice job GM, we don’t even need to read the article, or attempt to understand the way it works, to conclude that its a bad idea. If only Toyota had thought of this first, then it’d have been the best idea in the history of great ideas.

  • avatar

    Not that I see any manufacturer building a completely spec-ordered vehicle just to provide one “potential” owner the ability to get a digital key to test drive it and then decide they don’t want it, leaving the dealer with a one-off on his lot. Wouldn’t the prospective buyer still need to pick up even a digital key? I’m thinking this is more an answer to a question not asked…

  • avatar

    Has anyone here shopped for a car recently? Keys are no longer stored in the key drawer, or in a central location. They’re stored at the car, in a box. Salesdroid uses an app to unlock the box. Voila.

    • 0 avatar

      I am buying a new car tomorrow, so I will see. What they really need is to have the keys dropped at my house via Amazon drone, then have a bigger drone drop off the car.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    There’s another industry where this makes sense: buy-here-pay-here operations. Just think about it. They grant you temporary access that doesn’t renew unless you make your payment. Instead of having to equip each vehicle with a pricey remote-dsiabling system, they can electronically revoke access to the car, and unless you’re very good with computers, no amount of tinkering will grant you access back.

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