Automakers Working Feverishly to Make Car Keys Disappear

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
automakers working feverishly to make car keys disappear

Keys have evolved quite a bit over the last century. Most cars don’t require that you use a traditional key anymore, and proximity sensors take away the need to even lock and unlock a vehicle’s doors. While some of us appreciate the satisfying sensation of pressing a button or turning a key, it’s grown unnecessary. But some automakers want to take things a step further and abandon keys altogether.

We’ve heard BMW mention this before. Back in 2017, the brand’s head of sales said the automaker was actively reassessing the practical value of car keys now that keyless entry is the norm. “Honestly, how many people really need [keys],” Robertson said. “They never take it out of their pocket, so why do I need to carry it around?”

Now, the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which includes BMW, General Motors, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Audi, Lincoln, Apple, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, and more, has published the Digital Key Release 1.0 specification. The aim is to establish a standardized solution for the industry that enables drivers to download a digital key onto their smart devices and use it on every vehicle they own.

Tesla already does something akin to this with its vehicles. Owners can use bluetooth devices to access their vehicle in the same manner as a proximity key. There’s also a backup key card that can be used when and if your smartphone runs out of battery. Other automakers provide the ability to unlock or locate the car using an appropriately paired wireless device.

The CCC says the new standard will make use of near-field communication (NFC) technology, with the system possessing “the highest state-of-the-art security level for vehicle access.” That includes remote entry to multiple vehicles and the ability to share access with others.

However, the technology, both old and new, has raised security concerns. Wireless devices and connected cars have already proven themselves to be vulnerable to hacking. While a physical lock takes some amount of time to pick, digital ones can be defeated in numerous ways. A key fob’s transmission can be blocked, leaving your vehicle open when you think you’ve locked it, whereas p roximity keys are vulnerable to amplifiers that effectively allow criminals to relay the signal to your car long after you’ve walked away from it. There’s also ways to capture transmittable data similar to how bandits skim credit card information remotely.

Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to this. All you need to do is place your key and cards in a cheap pouch or wallet with electromagnetic shielding. While they won’t work inside the pouch, it does offer total protection. But you can see how that might be an issue with a phone, as you’ll miss calls and texts until you remove it from the bag.

The Digital Key Release 1.0 announcement does talk quite a bit about security, without going into specific details. So we don’t know exactly how the CCC intends to implement its safety protocols. Since the system is supposed to work on “proven” NFC technology, we would expect it to be vulnerable to the same sort of exploits. Of course, we can’t say for certain until we’ve seen the product in action.

“I’m excited about the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve received from the industry to our standardized Digital Key solution, with new members signing up to help drive adoption and specification development,” said Mahfuzur Rahman, President of the CCC. “We’re already seeing products in the market that are leveraging Release 1.0, and I believe that the forthcoming Digital Key Release 2.0 will have an even bigger impact on the industry as we meet needs for massive scalability.”

Right now, the Release 1.0 specification is available to all CCC member companies. Release 2.0 is targeted for completion in the first quarter of 2019. Its intent will be to provide a standardized authentication protocol between the vehicle and smart device. The CCC also claims 2.0 will deliver a fully scalable solution to reduce development costs for adopters and ensure interoperability between different smart devices and vehicles.

[Image: BMW]

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2 of 64 comments
  • Cbrworm Cbrworm on Jun 25, 2018

    I think this is a bad idea and I am a pro-technology person. First, I frequently leave my devices at home (my normal carry devices rotate between an iPhone 8+, an Apple Watch and an iPhone 5s and occasionally a google nexus, depending on what I am doing). I also frequently leave the devices in the car. I do this solely to disconnect from the world in which I live and work. Second, I have no problem with car keys for the ignition, prox keys work fine for me mostly too - although I prefer the older style systems where you still turn a knob to acc/on/start - just without a key. One of my recent BMWs had a decent (instant) push-button start w/ prox key. I still would have preferred something else. My new Mercedes has a push-button start that is so slow to respond that when I first got the car, I would push it (starting the power-up cycle), nothing would appear to happen so I would push it again, (stopping the power-up cycle?), and push it again. It took me a while to realize that I had to push/release the button and then wait a few seconds for lights, cranking, etc. Same thing putting it into gear, but that's a whole different conversation. Every iteration has gotten slower to respond. Much like pushing the button on my cell phone to open the garage door is nowhere near as fast as the physical button I keep clipped to my visor. For the doors and trunk, I prefer prox keys. Sticking a key in the door seems pretty archaic, although, knowing what I know, I don't foresee changing the exterior house locks away from a primarily key based system until some changes are implemented. Third, this will be another avenue for car theft. We are going from a somewhat secure method (keys) to less secure (some prox keys) to a proposed system which will surely be less secure - especially if it is supported on multiple mobile operating systems. I suspect that at some point I will make a conscious decision to not buy any car newer than X. My 2018 car makes me think I should move the target back a few years. Maybe 2014. 2008 would be perfect with cameras, blind spot monitoring and adaptive cruise. And possibly keys.

  • Road_pizza Road_pizza on Jun 26, 2018

    So those of us that refuse to buy smart phones are screwed? I will NEVER own one of those infernal devices EVER. Which means I will also never own a vehicle that requires me to use one. Remember one little thing... just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD.

  • Del My father bought GM cars in the 60's, but in 1971 he gave me a used Datsun (as they were called back then), and I'm now in my 70's and am happy to say that GM has been absent from my entire adult life. This article makes me gladder than ever.
  • TheEndlessEnigma That's right GM, just keep adding to that list of reasons why I will never buy your products. This, I think, becomes reason number 69, right after OnStar-Cannot-Be-Disabled-And-It-Comes-Standard-Whether-Or-Not-You-Want-It and Screw-You-American-Car-Buyer-We-Only-Make-Trucks-And-SUVs.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic Does this not sound and feel like the dawn of ICE automobiles in the early 20th century, but at double or triple speed speed!!There were a bunch of independent car markers by the late 1910’s. By the mid 20’s, we were dropping down to 10 or 15 producers as Henry was slashing the price of the Model T. The Great Depression hit, and we are down to the big three and several independents. For EVs, Tesla bolted out of the gate, the small three are in a mad dash to keep up. Europe was caught flat footed due to the VW scandal. Lucid, Lordstown, & Rivian are scrambling to up production to generate cash. Now the EV leader has taken a page from the Model T and is slashing prices putting the rest of the EV market in a tail spin. Deja vu……
  • Michael Eck With those mods, I wonder if it's tuned...
  • Mike-NB2 I'm not a Jeep guy, but I really, really like the 1978 Jeep Cherokee 4xe concept.