Digital car keys are here. Are we ready?

Published in The Verge on November 27, 2023.

NFC versus ultra wideband. Tap-to-start versus passive signals. If we’re going to use our phones to operate our cars, we need to get a lot of this straightened out — and soon.

First we had hand cranks. Then real keys, followed by key fobs. And now we have “digital keys,” which enables you to lock, unlock, and start your car from your phone.

Digital keys are still rare, only offered in a handful of models. Before digital key technology can reach ubiquity, there are still a lot of issues that need to be worked out. What kinds of technology should be used: Near-field communication (NFC)? Ultra wideband (UWB)? Bluetooth? How do we ensure it’s safe from hackers? And what happens when your phone runs out of batteries? (Spoiler: it will still work.)

Many automakers already offer digital keys, but it hasn’t always worked flawlessly. Tesla said it was only going to do digital keys for the Model 3, but later opted for good old-fashioned key fobs because customers wanted them.

The need for global standards and solutions for smartphone and in-vehicle connectivity is what’s spurring the industry to come together to formulate a plan for the future. Recently, two industry consortiums joined forces to create a working group with the mission to create standards around digital keys: the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which includes most major car companies, as well as Apple, Samsung, and Xiaomi; and FiRa Consortium, a nonprofit that supports ultra wideband and includes Apple, Google, Cisco, Samsung, Qualcomm, and others as members.

Daniel Knobloch is the vice president and a board member at CCC. Before that, he worked for over seven years as a wireless systems architect at BMW. We spoke to Knobloch about digital keys, the different types of technology they rely on, and when digital keys will replace physical keys — if at all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the advantages of this technology? Why do we need something like a digital key, and why do we need technical specifications around the use case?

So, very good question. In 2017, when we started with that technical specification, standardization was not on our plan. But our plan was that we wanted to have a flexible technology, which can be integrated in cars and in phones. Whatever you drive, you can use any phone, whether it’s an Apple or Google or Samsung phone. We want to have an ecosystem which works across all the phones, across all the devices.

And in order to achieve that, we could not get around standardization at all, because you have to agree on one technology across all the device OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and all the vehicles … in order not to have to switch to different technologies. You have multiple technologies in the car installed. You have multiple technologies on the phone and every car uses a different app, a different methodology, a different user experience. And that is the main driver.

Read the full article from The Verge here