New Standard Could Help Turn Smartphones Into Car Keys

Keys that sometimes get lost in the couch or left behind could be replaced by something people carry everywhere if automakers and mobile device vendors embrace a new standard for using smartphones as car keys.

The idea of unlocking and starting a vehicle with only a phone may appeal to consumers who already use their handsets to get in the house, turn up the thermostat and find the love of their lives. The challenge is making the system secure, as well as simple enough for manufacturers to implement.

The Digital Key Release 1.0 specification, announced this week by the Car Connectivity Consortium, is the first step to getting auto and phone companies on the same page about this capability. By defining a common standard, which is intended to be built as much as possible on existing specifications, the group hopes to make it easier and less expensive for companies to implement digital keys.

Release 1.0 defines a way for automakers to transfer a digital key to a smart device, the industry group says. It uses near-field communication (NFC), which is already being used for mobile payments with systems like Apple Pay, and a direct link to the phone’s hardware-based secure element. Release 2.0, expected in the first quarter of next year, will add a standardized authentication protocol between the vehicle and the device.

A digital key could be used in several different ways, a CCC white paper says. Drivers may unlock or start cars by using an app, by tapping the device on a certain spot in the vehicle, or just by getting close to the car or sitting in the driver’s seat. Some implementations might require a passcode or a biometric identifier.

At first, the digital keys won’t replace physical keys but offer a more convenient alternative, the group says. Eventually, owners should be able to share their digital keys with other drivers, either in person or remotely, and revoke them as needed. Temporary key provisioning could be used for car sharing, fleet management and delivering packages to customers’ trunks.

The effort has some heavy hitters behind it. General Motors, Volkswagen, BMW, Audi and Hyundai belong to the consortium, along with Apple, Samsung, LG Electronics, Qualcomm and other companies. Audi says it has already offers the Digital Key technology to customers.

Smartphone access to vehicles is already beginning to change the car-rental industry in a way that customers are likely to notice. In some cases, it may eliminate the tedious process of waiting in line to sign paperwork and take possession of the key.

Avis Budget, one of biggest US rental companies, is conducting trials of technology that lets customers walk up to their assigned car, unlock it using an Avis smartphone app, and get on the road immediately. It’s also looking at starting cars by phone.

Silvercar, a startup that offers a simplified rental experience with just one make of car (Audi) and streamlined pickup and dropoff, already offers unlocking by phone, after which customers find the keys in the car.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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