By on June 22, 2018

BMW smartphone sync

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 proximity 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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64 Comments on “Automakers Working Feverishly to Make Car Keys Disappear...”

  • avatar

    While I’m sure this will be hacked it is the same basic technology used in NFC credit card purchases (aka Apple Pay, etc) so it works good enough for most.

    Given how much these keys cost and pain of programming them being able to off loading the work to an app on your phone is likely a win for the OEM. However you’ll be hating life when your phone dies (gets dropped, battery flat, etc) leaving you standing next your car in the rain at night.

    • 0 avatar

      Eh, NFC is just a communications mode.

      Not using actual credit card or RFID chips lets it be much more robust; a properly designed (important caveat) system could in principle be completely secure, because even if someone could record the entire conversation, they couldn’t replay or decode it to open the lock.

      (Plus, re Jim’s point below, who’s gonna get rid of mechanical locks? I have keyless go on my Volvo and the fob has a key to open the (normally hidden) lock on the door.

      If my phone could unlock my car I’d use that, but I’d *also carry the backup key* for exactly that reason.)

    • 0 avatar

      If it’s NFC then I’ll have to get a new phone. Worse is my brother and his old flip phone. Ever worser (is that a word?) and his wife, they have thing about not wanting a cell phone because they think cell towers are a blight. It’s my youngest brother that has some a pretty new I-phone, but he is also the poorest and not likely to be buying a new car anytime soon.

    • 0 avatar

      “However you’ll be hating life when your phone dies (gets dropped, battery flat, etc) leaving you standing next your car in the rain at night.”

      In December of 2017 (winter, natch), I was having drinks with a bunch of my friends when my LG V10 went into bootloop.

      This was not unexpected, really; I had been hearing about this problem for months. Mine finally got the disease.

      But fortunately, I was able to walk out to my car, unlock it, start it, and drive home to my warm bed.

      Call me an old fart, but no thanks on any of this. The phone already has a lot of eggs in one basket; this particular egg needs to stay out of that basket.

  • avatar

    Terrible idea to get rid of physical keys. The driver’s door power lock servo in my ’08 Toyota stopped working a few years ago and the passenger one is intermittent- and this is in a snow-free climate. The Bosch servos in my late-1990s Volvo also failed, one by one, starting when they were only a few years old. Anybody who has lived at least one full year where it snows and freezes ought to know this is a really, really, REALLY dumb idea!

    The execs who are seriously thinking of this deserve to get locked out of their cars in freezing weather, be the only person in the parking lot with no help around. Make it at night so they really remember. I hope they survive the experience because I don’t wish physical harm on some dumbheaded auto execs- but I wouldn’t shed a tear if one of them came to grief as a victim to not being able to get into their car because the high tech remote control gee whiz gadget failed them.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb idea.

    • 0 avatar

      Nobody but one BMW exec’s mouth-jabber is suggesting “getting rid of physical keys” – and I doubt they’d let him ship a car that way.

      In the real world, they’ll have mechanical locks like existing keyfob systems do – just replacing or augmenting the fob with a phone-based unlock.

  • avatar

    Your key will expire if you don’t make your car payment on time.

  • avatar

    Terrible idea. Sometimes old tech is more practical. This reminds me of the clowns who said the F-4 Phantom didn’t need an internal cannon back in the ‘60s. “Dogfights are impossible at supersonic speed and besides, we’ve got heat seeker technology”. Whoops.

  • avatar

    And what happens when you want to loan your car to someone else for a quick trip? Do they need your phone? What if you park it with a valet? Can you pass around digital keys so that my wife and I and a trusted third party has access? If you can pass them around, what keeps someone from compromising your smartphone and making a copy for themselves? Before you had to steal/clone one fob for each car, but with this option you can steal/clone one phone (or just the key on the phone) and get access to everything in that person’s garage? What happens when the car battery is dead? With my current passive entry system I can pop the caps off of the door handle and use the physical key inside the fob to open the door. That doesn’t work if the key is digital.

    What happens when you sell the car? How do you transfer the digital key to the new owners? How do you ensure that the old keys are properly wiped? What happens when you upgrade your smartphone and need to move the keys? I’m sure you can just generate a new set of digital keys at the dealer for a $250 fee, right? What if they eventually drop support for your model car because the onboard software is too dated? What if you have a smart phone that they don’t support (Blackberry and Windows Phone users are prime candidates here)?

  • avatar

    I’m pleasantly surprised to see the first four comments are pro-key. Non-keys/electronic keys probably are a net positive if you have an infant to wrangle. Apart from that, they’re a net negative (albeit a minor one, in practice) perceived as a huge advancement by an out-of-touch society in love with technological frippery.

    – – –

    Addendum: the family fleet has one vehicle with a traditional key and another with a key fob. The former has caused zero ownership/use/cost headaches; the latter has.

    • 0 avatar

      How about … both, like I said above?

      Keyless entry, and a phone-based system can be made far more secure than a cheapass fob … and ALSO a backup key, just like the fobs have now?

      You get convenience, improved security (over extant fobs, assuming per above improved security in the new protocol), AND still have a key for when it’s needed.

      (I’ve had more problems from key or cylinder failure than from fob failure, myself, but YMMV.)

  • avatar

    When I had my ’96 Probe GT I had an aftermarket alarm installed, using the factory’s remote locking key fob to arm/disarm it. One day I parked near a TV transmission tower and the RF emanating from the tower acted like a forcefield. Even standing right next to my car I couldn’t disarm the alarm, so of course despite having the key fob in hand the alarm was blaring endlessly. Had to disable the thing by disconnecting the battery. Towed the car to the dealer and had them uninstall the alarm; I would have preferred the car being stolen to being useless.

    I like my ’07 Mazda 6’s switchblade key, makes me feel like I’m doing something illegal every time I go for a drive. :-) Only problem is that I put a little torque on the key every time I twist to fire up the car and it is progressively bending the key to the point where I can see it being stuck inside the fob.

  • avatar

    The answer to a question nobody asked.

    Opps. Hang on. Maybe – new right now buzz word loving iphone obsessed millennials are demanding it.

    Me, not so much.

  • avatar

    I think it was irresponsible to get rid of mechanical ignition keys, because any electronic system can be hacked if the criminals are clever enough. A mechanical key AND an electronic device together are much safer.

  • avatar

    I will not be owning any car that talks to the inter-webs or uses a push to start button or proximity ‘key.’ So, that means my newest car will be about a 2010 model year.

    • 0 avatar

      The start button is about the size of a cylinder lock. You can have one installed. A friend of mine replaced the start button on his Lincoln MKZ with a key, but that was easy: the base Fusion had a keyed ignition that fit.

      I don’t like start buttons either. In those infamous runaway Toyotas, people stabbed at the start/stop button and forgot to hold it down for a couple seconds to turn off the engine. When the engine mount broke on my ’65 Impala, lifting the engine and pulling out the accelerator, I just turned the engine off by turning the key on the dash. Sometimes you don’t have a couple seconds.

  • avatar

    This is what always happens with new technology==it’s so great, until it fails. Nobody thinks of that. Are keys that hard to carry?

    • 0 avatar

      There are only so many patterns available, and some are so similar a slightly different key will work. I once used the key from my ’65 Impala to open the door of a shipmate’s ’68 Ford Cortina. It worked on the ignition too. But I’d still take my chances with a key over a remote or start/stop button.

    • 0 avatar

      They are for a 10 mile trail run, or a 25+ mile bike ride.

      Everyone thinks new technology is so unreliable, but they never stop to think about the tiny little springs and tumblers, with microscopic clearances, that have to work for a key cylinder to work. All that pocket lint slowly goes from your pocket to your keyblade to your key cylinder. And over time the hardened tumblers chew away at the softer key blade till your key doesn’t work anymore.

      No moving parts in a radio signal.

      • 0 avatar

        “No moving parts in a radio signal.”

        It’s not the radio signal I’m most worried about (although others have pointed out scenarios where it fails in real life), it’s the power lock servos. I have been locked out of my own two door car because of these things and had to use the key to get in. I have only been using the key lock on my driver’s door for years now because that servo finally gave up a few years ago (when the car was about seven years old). And I’ve had a handful of them go out on my other cars over the years. Indeed, they all gave me some warning by working intermittently for several months so I could have replaced them ($$).

        Key lock maintenance is simple- squirt oil in the keyhole (preferably the kind that doesn’t attract dust, like LPS-1 for petroleum based or any silicone based lube). I agree with you somewhat about key locks eventually wearing out because most car owners won’t oil their locks or they’ll squirt WD-40 in there (doh!!), but I’ve just never had any of my own key locks wear out.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    I’d like to see this technology extended. In the example of the family SUV that Mom drives all week, but Dad drives when the whole family goes to a game…

    Mom’s seat and mirror positions are saved and indexed to her smartphone, ditto for Dad’s. Even infotainment presets could be saved by user….lots of possibilities.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d be impressed to a family in which mom, dad, and any kids of driving age actually ALL adjusted the mirrors in the familymobile. Actually, I’m sure there are a few households like that, but I bet they’re as rare as hens’ teeth or people who read the vehicle owner’s manual. So if we had documented proof of, say, a dozen families who actually did that then you could knock me over with a feather.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      My wife’s not particularly advanced 2015 RDX does this now with the proximity key. Pretty common really.

    • 0 avatar

      My 2008 LS460 could be set to do this with the two keys (as can my current 2011 LX570). Seat, steering wheel, and outside mirrors all set automatically when the car was approached with the right key. The only things to adjust were the inside mirror and the radio.

    • 0 avatar

      “Mom’s seat and mirror positions are saved and indexed to her smartphone, ditto for Dad’s. Even infotainment presets could be saved by user….lots of possibilities.”

      The killer application will be leasing and renting cars. Your basic profile can be “public” for the system, using common information like basic seating and mirror positions and radio stations and climate control settings–so when you get into a rental, or move from one car to another, all of “your” setup is there.

      Of course, this will all be manufacturer-specific–which defeats the purpose, really.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    You could build planned obsolesce in to this system by making it to where after a certain time period you will not be able to unlock your vehicle or start it. Maybe they will make these key less systems like Microsoft windows to where you can update it a few times and then after a while you can no longer update and you will be forced to get rid of your vehicle. If that were the case it might be better to lease a vehicle than to buy one.

    • 0 avatar

      Or they could take a page from Apple’s playbook and slowly, artificially, degrade the performance; After 5 years when it takes 20 seconds to get up to speed and you just can’t seem to get above 65 even on a downhill, that shiny new version X will look so tempting.

    • 0 avatar

      You mean like my 2 Windows 7 PCs from around 2011 that I upgraded for free to Windows 10 and are still going strong?

      Your definition of “update it a few times” and mine are completely different.

      Even then for $200-250 you can get a basic LICENSED Windows 10 PC direct from China. Brands you never heard of which run faster than those 2011 PCs.

      My work PC is a 2009 Windows 7 PC. I don’t want to move to a Virtual Server based Windows 10 “PC” as I do .NET/C# coding for a living. I actually prefer to have a PC that runs relatively slower than the current norm. That way if you can speed some code up on a slow PC, it will run faster still on a newer PC. The 2009 box has never let me down.

    • 0 avatar

      I doubt they would do that, vehicle purchases tend to be too expensive for such planned obsolescence besides that would kill the lucrative CPO market.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    My biggest concern is that if I link my phone and car in this fashion, will it take over my phone and render it unusable while driving? My navigation system in one of our cars is already neutered when the car is in D, I don’t want the car doing that to my phone too.

  • avatar

    Proximity keys are useless. I cn’t believe anyone seriously thinks “fumbling” with keys was such an issue it needed to be solved by a proximity key (yet another battery I have to change) Plus, turning a key takes the same amount of time/effort as pushing the start button.

    Perhaps, they could develop a hybrid like the older Honda keys with the push button door/trunk lock/unlock. Instead of button use the proximity key for doors/trunks and a real key to start the car…..

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      Proximity keys are useless for men.

      But I’ve watched my wife, mom, etc fumble around in their giant purses and dig for a key so they can drive away. Proximity keys are huge for ladies.

      • 0 avatar

        The other main “customer story” for this novel entry stuff is actually trail runners / trail bikers. So you go to the park to run, and you toss everything into the center console or glovebox and lock the car. You can lock your key in with the keypad on the door, do you don’t have to carry it with you all 10 miles you plan on running (or 25+ biking) today. And when you get back, if it’s a proximity key, you don’t have to dig it out of anywhere, just key in your code, jump in the car, and drive home.

        Using your phone as a key is the same: most runners / bikers take their phones (but not their keys) for a tracking app or to listen to music. Now you don’t even have to fumble with the door code. (or, let’s be honest, figure out how to set it)

        At the moment, I’m not sure any OEM (except maybe Tesla) is really planning on making *all* keys go away. This stuff is all addition, not replacement. Some suppliers have shown off some really interesting concepts to enable getting rid of fobs and mechanical keys entirely, but nothing looks ready for prime time, certainly not within the next 5-10 years.

        P.S. the lock is one of the least reliable parts of the car. All those tiny little tumblers and springs with microscopic clearances just love your pocket lint when you shove a key in there…

        • 0 avatar

          You must not know much about cars, the lock cylinders are amongst the MOST reliable systems in any vehicle. Oh, and BTW, that’s almost 30 years in the car business talking. In a region with very crappy winters.

    • 0 avatar


      I find this intriguing. Proximity keys are in my opinion, a great evolution to the car in the last 15 years. I would never want to drive a car without one, and this is the number 1 reason why I want to replace my wife’s car (it still has a key).

      Using a key is a pain in the neck. I don’t have a key on my house, so why should I have one on my car? I don’t have a key at my office, so why should I have one on my car?

      Getting your keys out to lock/unlock your car is a pain in the neck.

      Honestly it wasn’t “that big of a deal” when I had keys, but once you get used to a proximity key, using a key feels as antiquated as having to turn on your headlights (also awful). You get spoiled/used to it.

      My last 3 cars all had proximity keys, and its nice just being able to get in your car and drive.

      I would NOT drive a car without it today, even if you gave me a massive discount. Proximity keys truly are a “must have” feature of any car I’d consider.

  • avatar

    What about the number of us who don’t own a smart phone? It’s silly for carmakers to assume that everyone does. Granted, most non smart phone owners are elderly, but I am a millennial without one. It’s a matter of keeping life simple and I choose not to have one. My flip phone does all that I need it to.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      If you’re hipster enough to not own a smart phone you’re probably too hipster to buy a new car with cutting edge tech too. The overlap between “new car buyer” and “not a smart phone owner” is vanishingly small.

      • 0 avatar

        It’s not a matter of being hipster or making a statement. Your comment is actually funny because I am-so-not hipster It’s a matter of keeping life simple and not having yet another distraction. My life doesn’t revolve around social media and keeping everything of mine on one device. It’s just that simply I don’t want or need a smart phone and it keeps my mind sharp. My flip phone has lasted years with no issues: no cracks, no concerns of hacking, tracing, updates, or screen freezes.

        Sure, I know I’m the minority but surely car makers can’t expect owners to rely on an outside device to operate their car. At least keys are provided with a vehicle and are resilient. Phones are fragile. Phones get broken, or replaced, or hacked.

        Maybe you’re right, I’m not a target audience for BMW, but eventually their technology trickles down to mainstream vehicles

        • 0 avatar

          “I am-so-not hipster It’s a matter of keeping life simple and not having yet another distraction. My life doesn’t revolve around social media and keeping everything of mine on one device. It’s just that simply I don’t want or need a smart phone and it keeps my mind sharp.”

          You’ve just proven that you’re a hipster. Nice try through.

    • 0 avatar

      I find this discussion really interesting.

      I don’t know where you live festiboi, but in rural areas, lots of people I know don’t have smart phones because they don’t work.

      I used to be in the horse-industry, and my boss suggested we make an app for horse owners… but it didn’t take long to realize many horse owners don’t have smart phones, because there is no phone coverage on their farms.

      I don’t think its just hipsters.

      I actually live fairly close to some cities but I’m regularly out of cell phone coverage areas. phone coverage really isn’t as reliable as we like to think it is.

      • 0 avatar

        I am in a similar state as festiboi. I don’t have a cell phone nor smarty pants phone. I choose to not be that connected. I don’t want work to be able to contact me. I do not want the distraction. Yes, in emergency situations it’d be of great value so I am aware of the compromises I am undertaking. I would agree with a previous poster that the talk is not of total replacement, just augmentation. If the talk is truly total replacement, then I won’t be driving anything new enough to warrant the need. I’m not going to be around long enough at this point for it to make much difference any way.

        The fascination with tech is truly the issue. Just because it CAN be done does not necessarily mean it SHOULD be done. Optional seems the best approach. Those who want it have it available, those who don’t can continue in a manner that’s comfortable for them too.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m 55 and I refuse to get one of those infernal devices.

  • avatar

    I’ve tried both major phone companies in order to get a decent mobile signal, but depending om weather and whether the leaves are out in summer we live on the fringes of reception. Have to keep a landline as well. Same situation with the neighbors.

    So instead of remote starting after an icestorm with a button fob as I do now, I’d have to use my phone? With no cell signal, how’s that work, O doltish overlords!

    Not everyone uses a smartphone in the first place either. Keys open my house front door, and can work on a car as 8 decades or more have shown. I do not wish to broadcast to the world each time I start my car, nor where I am. That’s my business

    But most people accept this bullsh*t without a thought. Lemmings.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny because I experience the same things. So many urbanites just take cell coverage for granted, but there is still missing cell coverage over much of north america.

      I work in an office of thousands of people, and we don’t even get cell phone coverage in our office. I get it now in my current house, but my last house didn’t get it at all, and when I drive from home to work I lose cell phone coverage for a while on the drive.

      We have a camper, and lots of campgrounds don’t have cell coverage either…

  • avatar

    My Charger has a proximity key and keyless start. As I’m fond of saying, it’s a solution in search of a problem. The wife’s Camry, on the other hand, has a real live key. Sooo much easier.

  • avatar

    Hardly surprising. Many automakers are working feverishly to make cars disappear.

  • avatar

    The Bottom Line-
    No one who gets this technology can get rid of the REST of their keys, so unless it works with your phone, this will end up being an EXTRA bulge in your pocket along with your keys. And even if it is in your phone, too many potential glitches for now. So no.

    • 0 avatar

      What “rest of their keys”?

      My house was built in 2002, and it uses no keys.
      My office uses no keys.
      The company I own uses no keys.

      The only thing I own that uses keys is my car, and thats a proximity key blob.

  • avatar

    GMs Maven car rental service is already using something like this. You use the phone app to unlock and start the car. There was a noticeable 5 sec delay that made me nervous and I was afraid to park anywhere with poor cell service (e.g. underground parking garage) but otherwise was pretty cool.

  • avatar

    If they want to make car keys disappear, all they need to do is hire me. I’m really good at making keys disappear.

  • avatar

    If it’s an opt-in thing then I don’t really care as I won’t be opting in. I, like most people, have a smart phone with smart wallet capability (I’m not sure if that’s the industry term for it) where you can link your payment cards and pay through the app. I’m not going to add my card information to the app because it’s not a value added exercise for me. Opening an app, signing in and choosing which card I want to use strikes me as too many steps to be worth it.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree.

      The idea of getting rid of car keys altogether is awful in my opinion. Way too frequently cell phones die, coverage is lacking, or a phone is unavailable.

      But to have it as an “opt in extra”, it doesn’t seem bad… its not that different than all the car companies having their apps that let you start the car, unlock the car, etc.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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