Unlocking the Keyless Car Future

For just about everything we do these days, “there's an app for that.” Is the car key destined to become one more little tile on a smartphone screen?

The thought hit me recently while interviewing Broadcom executive Tom Ramsthaler, responsible for product marketing of wireless connectivity. In discussing the company's upcoming 802.11ac/Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) combo chip, Ramsthaler explained to me what he envisions as in-vehicle applications enabled by Bluetooth LE.

He talked about Nissan Watch, unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show last month. The smartwatch, using a Bluetooth LE connection, gathers telemetry data from a car so that it can show the driver the car's efficiency information, such as fuel consumption, while also tracking performance. The Nissan Watch also monitors certain parameters of driver health, like heart rate in a traffic jam.

Nissan Watch links a car and a driver.

Nissan Watch links a car and a driver.

OK, mildly interesting. But hardly the mass market product that will prompt every carmaker to embrace Bluetooth LE, I thought. However, Ramsthaler mentioned offhand that Bluetooth LE would be useful as a smart car key.

Now I'm interested.

As I recall, NXP, armed with the lion's share in the smart car key market, had been thinking along these lines. NXP came up with a single-chip solution for multi-function car keys using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. The idea is for keys to connect to external NFC-compliant devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Announcing the product, called KEyLink Lite, NXP talked about potential “smart” key applications including car finder, route planner, and car status/service data management.

So, now that Broadcom is coming to the automotive market with Bluetooth LE chips, will we be seeing an NFC vs. Bluetooth LE battle brewing in the smart car key market?

Or better yet, will there be a day when we can do away with our car keys and flip open a car door simply by waving the phone?

Not so fast.

Talking to several executives at the European Microelectronics Summit, I quickly realized that using a smartphone to enter a car is actually not a smart idea.

Ian Riches, director of global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, agreed that unlocking a car with a smartphone is possible. But he cautioned: “The problem is that a lot of people go inside a car to charge their smartphones. What if your smartphone already ran out of battery? You can't even open your car door!”

I broached the subject with Drue Freeman, vice president of global sales and marketing in the automotive business unit for NXP Semiconductors, who was also a presenter at the European Microelectronics Summit. Freeman told me, “You need to understand that car keys must last longer than cars.”

Indeed, that's the first hurdle for any attempt to use a smartphone as a car key. Consumers swap smartphones roughly every 1.5 years. The average car lasts more than eight years.

While acknowledging that opening a car with an NFC-enabled smartphone could be done, Freeman posed a more salient matter of convenience.

In the current generation of keyless entry for cars, a smart key system disengages the immobilizer and activates the ignition without inserting a key in the ignition. The system uses LF (low frequency, 125 kHz) and RF (radio frequency, >300 MHz). It works by having a series of LF transmitting antennas both inside and outside the vehicle. External antennas are in the door handles. When the vehicle is triggered, an LF signal is transmitted from the antennas to the key. The key activates if it is sufficiently close, and it transmits its ID back to the vehicle via RF to a receiver located in the vehicle.

Applying NFC in a smartphone to the car security system is certainly feasible. But the driver still needs to walk up to a car and physically open the door — unless the smartphone is also integrated with an LF/RF-based keyless entry system.

Freeman explained, “With a smartphone, it's a two-step process. In contrast, the smart car key you use today can remotely flip a car open — instantly,” without fiddling with your smartphone first.

But let's be clear: The idea of unlocking and locking the car and then starting the ignition with a phone has haunted the minds of some carmakers, such as Hyundai.

By using NFC, Hyundai demonstrated 'Connectivity Concept.'

By using NFC, Hyundai demonstrated “Connectivity Concept.”

By using an embedded NFC tag in the car, Hyundai has designed a system that allows owners to unlock a vehicle, start the engine, and link up to the touchscreen with a quick swipe. The Korean automaker showed earlier this year what the company calls its “Connectivity Concept” in a demonstration i30 hatchback car.

So, the idea of a smartphone as your car key has been percolating for a few years, and it has gotten some attention from carmakers. Can a Bluetooth LE be that key?

One might say: Why not?

The first step in proving the feasibility of this concept is to make sure there is absolutely no EMC interference between a Bluetooth-based smart car key and the electronics inside the vehicle. Perhaps more important, Bluetooth LE requires power (albeit low energy). NFC connectivity “does not require a power supply in the key, hence does not affect the key's battery lifetime,” according to NXP's spokesperson. “Setting up a connectivity link is done by a touch and would not require an exchange pairing credential upfront.” In sum, NFC allows carmakers to focus on convenience and security.

Even assuming that either wireless technology — NFC or Bluetooth — works fine as a smart car key, technology suppliers need to clear one more hurdle.

NXP's Freeman explained that for a carmaker, the branded car key establishes the first and the most significant physical and tactile contact with car owners. Automotive companies might not be so eager to give up that precious branding opportunity to a smartphone — which bears no automotive brand.

Point taken.

For the time being, the NFC vs. Bluetooth LE battleground is likely to be focused more on connecting a smart car key with a smartphone (or any wearable smart device), rather than a smartphone replacing a car key.

According to NXP, the company's multi-function car key using NFC is “one member of a complete new product family designed for Smart Access solutions.” The product family debuts in the market with model year 2013 vehicles.

This blog originally appeared on EETimes.

12 comments on “Unlocking the Keyless Car Future

  1. SP
    October 26, 2013

    Smartphone is a revolution in this era. Ofcourse its not that far that cars being opened by a smartphone. Automobile business always gves more preference to mechanical over electronics and software, sure it woukd be possible to open the car by a key incase the smartphone is locked inside the car

  2. _hm
    October 26, 2013

    Will keyless car with smartphone unlocking will have one to one replationsship or one to many or many to many?

    Will I be able to store car key information for my wife and son/daughter' car in my mobile? Will they be able to do same?

    What if I want to give my car to my friend for few hours? What about car rental?

    Idea looks good but needs much more work to make make it reality.


  3. Nemos
    October 27, 2013

    “What if your smartphone already ran out of battery? You can't even open your car door!”

    Probably the new trend will be (as described) the RFID unlock such as a card key or the unlock via a smart-phone. The electronic way is great but is not 100% accurate always will be a chance for malfunction (as the ran out of battery for instance) thats why the car designers should always design the traditional way as well (with a normal key).

  4. SunitaT
    October 27, 2013

    A smart car or a smart technology? Why not both? The mass market is largely interested when it comes to cars and gadgets, but together, it becomes everybody's cup of tea. An app that feeds the information about a car to the driver is smart enough. The Nissan Smart Watch however, should be incorporated with vibration signals that alert the driver when the speed is actually becoming too fast for his heart to handle and his brain to function normally, because we don't normally check our wristwatches while driving.

  5. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 28, 2013

    All of this talk makes me look at my 10 year old toyota with new eyes. It's a total dinosaur. I wonder what wonders my next car will offer?  i like the idea of keyless entry–and the other stuff. I imagine it will become common in the not too distant future.

  6. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    October 28, 2013

    Kelyess entry systems do still pose a security problem. The reality of hackers is that any sort of electronic system can be hacked and provides a compelling challenge. Cars, especially new techie cars, can be a lucrative target. here's some more on that: How are these thieves exploiting automotive keyless entry ?

  7. Lavender
    October 28, 2013

    Technology development brings smartphone more functions, serving as car key, wallet, transportation card and others. I enjoy the convenience of not bringing different kinds of cards and keys, but I can't image how big the risk is when my phone lost and the pickers unlock the password. 

  8. Daniel
    October 28, 2013

    “The smartwatch, using a Bluetooth LE connection, gathers telemetry data from a car so that it can show the driver the car's efficiency information, such as fuel consumption, while also tracking performance.”

    Junko, getting any information at a handy way is good, but not preferable in driver's watch. Because it can divert the driver attention while driving, this can cause accidents.

  9. Himanshugupta
    October 29, 2013

    Smart car keys are more susceptible to software gliches and malwares. If we want to go hightech then biometeric are more advanced.

  10. jbond
    October 29, 2013

    @ Lily, I agree. I love the idea of keeping everything in my phone but I have a horrible fear of someone getting a hold of my phone or stealing the information via the internet. I don't even carry a credit card with me unless I need to.

  11. Lavender
    October 29, 2013

    Me too, or at least I could not put all my bank cards, ID card, money in one wallet where lots of my friends do so. It's so dangerous when the wallet lost. 

  12. rodsmx5
    March 5, 2014

    BMW has had keyless systems for its cars since at least 2007. No key is needed to open or start the car…no buttons to push, no fobs to insert. The fob you do get remains in your pocket and you simply touch the door handle to enter the car and push a “Start/Stop” button to start the car. Surprised the author of this piece didn't at least mention that.

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