Game over, car keys?

Game over, car keys?

We lock up our valuables. And we’ve been doing so for thousands of years – to protect them from misuse, theft, and vandalism. Keys have effectively protected our possessions, controlled access and enabled authentication. And the car key on its fob was a genuine status symbol. Yet in the age of smartphones it is becoming an analog anachronism.

Apps versus keys

Open the car door without having to search for the key. Start the engine without fiddling with the ignition. The drivers of modern vehicles with Keyless Go only need to have their car key in a pocket – mechanical locks have already disappeared from the latest vehicle variants. But this is also where the toughest competition is lurking: the smartphone. Apps have caught up with and already overtaken key technology. They can be used for remote control of the air-conditioning in the car’s interior, for locking the vehicle, and for surveillance of its location. And when the system recognizes that the smartphone is inside the car, the engine can be started simply by pressing a start button. Numerous vehicle brands have already been offering the “Digital Key” for quite a while. This convenient feature has long been used by car-sharing customers. A large number of hi-tech firms and manufacturers have teamed up to form the Car Connectivity Consortium to promote unified technical standards. The firms include BMW, VW, Hyundai, Honda, Apple, Samsung, Panasonic and LG Electronics. The system already enables drivers to use various vehicles with their smartphone.


Digital Key: flexible, smart and versatile

Volvo was one of the first car makers to introduce the “Digital Key” for its fleets. Vehicle owners receive – like when purchasing a computer program – only a digital code. Once you have entered it in the Volvo app, you can drive off. Another clever feature is that the digital key can be shared with other people, for example when you lend your car to a friend. All it takes is a click and the access authorization is transferred to the recipient’s device for a limited period. This can be revoked at any time. The electronic key also makes things easier when the car has to be serviced or repaired. The technicians can collect the car and return it very simply. You can also make your own vehicle available to the car-sharing community, for instance when you are away. The digital key technology seems to offer almost endless options. While the competition is catching up, Mercedes-Benz will pursue a different path for vehicle access from 2020: A digital key sticker containing an integrated microcontroller can be attached to a smartphone and used to contactlessly open, lock and start the vehicle, while the smartphone remains in the owner’s trouser pocket.

The Berlin firm Noblekey turns car keys into genuine works of art. Picture: Noblekey

Keys fighting for survival

But there’s one feature that Volvo is introducing for all its keys in the wave of digitization. From mid-2020 the Swedish car maker is voluntarily restricting the top speed of all its cars to 180 km/h. This has caused a real stir in the automotive world. Using the Care Key, vehicle owners can set an individual top speed, for example if they are lending the car to more inexperienced family members. Despite this, the car key as we know it is battling against dwindling importance and increasingly developing into a multi-functional design object and accessory. The Berlin firm Noblekey is taking this trend to the limit by turning car keys into works of art. Only the shaft and the internal electronics of the original are retained untouched, and the rest is turned into a unique item in accordance with the customer’s desires, using silver, gold or fine woods – for several thousand euros. The company also offers exquisite keys to yachts, private jets and real estate in other countries.


Display Key – die last rebellion?

Yet the key is fighting back by adding inner value. For instance, the “Display Key” for BMW’s luxury segment has attracted a great deal of publicity. The key is charged by induction when it lies in the tray in the center console. The highlight is the 2.2 inch touchscreen that indicates the amount of fuel in the tank and the remaining range, and can also initiate automated parking. The result was not a key, but a remote control that will hardly fit into a trouser pocket, like smartphones that are getting bigger all the time. Great features versus convenience.

BMW’s Display Key. Picture: BMW

Gesture-controlled opening

Experts see the advent of digital replacement keys without mechanical parts as offering more opportunities for digital gangsters. Keyless Go has long been regarded as an easy way for car thieves to gain access to a vehicle. These systems measure the key’s signal strength. The stronger it is, the closer the user is to the vehicle. However, the signal can easily be intercepted. The chip manufacturer NXP and the vehicle maker VW unveiled a concept car in Hamburg at the end of August, which is opened using Ultra-Wideband-Technology (UWB). This makes it impossible to intercept the radio signal. UWB enables a precise check on the position of the rightful key owner in real time, which cannot be manipulated. Furthermore, the car can also unlock individual doors depending on the side the driver is approaching from. The application of AI is also revolutionary. The technology learns and recognizes the driver’s walking patterns and gestures. So the car can be taught to open the trunk when the owner waves a hand holding the key, or puts a foot close to the trunk.

The Volkswagen Group and NXP Semiconductors demonstrate future areas of application for Ultra-Wideband technology.

I am the key

Biometric solutions are the ultimate alternative and a nail in the coffin for conventional access systems. After all, eyes, vein patterns, fingerprints and faces are unique. For example, no two people have the same fingerprints. And you always have them with you. In 2019 Huyndai produced the first series model featuring door handles and a starter button equipped with a biometric scanner. The driver can start the engine only after authentication by a fingerprint sensor. In a fraction of a second its electrodes scan the lines, loops and whorls of the user’s fingertips and compare them with stored data sets. Individual settings such as the positions of the seat and the mirrors and the choice of infotainment are simultaneously activated. More features are planned. Osram, on the other hand, is developing an iris scan for cars. The company already has a version of the system for smartphones. An LED acts as a light source illuminating the iris with infrared light of a suitable wavelength so that a camera can capture an image of the iris pattern. Here, too, the result is compared with stored information. Then the recognized driver will be able to open the car door without needing a key, or disable the immobilizer. Another infrared LED can recognize whole faces.

Hyundai’s fingerprint scanner on a door handle. Picture: Hyundai

My house, my boat, my car – a universal telepathic key

Combined with fashion basics, biometrics could also appear in the soles of our shoes, for example. A integrated sensor system in the sole of a shoe recognizes how the wearer’s weight is shifting while running, and thus identifies the wearer. This works because a person’s gait is also inimitable. When the shoe is placed on the floor mat inside a vehicle, it could start the engine. Accessing your car by telepathy would be the next step. Why not use sensors to measure brainwaves whose bioelectric patterns can be distinguished for commands such as “open,” “close” and “drive off”? And this could be used for all locking systems – for the home, the office, the yacht and the garage. You would have a single biometric digital key for all aspects of your life. So then we would finally bury our bunch of keys. R.I.P.

(Stagephoto © Erik Mclean/ Unsplash)