With keyless entry and ignition prevalent on modern vehicles, physical car keys are quickly becoming antiquated. And in world in which we carry portable devices that allows instant access to our bank accounts or our vehicles via a mobile app, automakers and some suppliers and looking to ditch even key fobs.
For example, at the Frankfurt auto show last week, BMW board member Ian Robertson questioned the relevance of physical car keys and hinted that the company may get rid of them altogether. “Honestly, how many people really need it?” Robertson told Reuters.
“They never take it out of their pocket, so why do I need to carry it around?” he added. “We are looking at whether it is feasible, and whether we can do it. Whether we do it right now or at some point in the future, remains to be seen,” Robertson said.
Automotive supplier Continental isn’t waiting that long. At the Frankfurt auto show, the CEO of the company’s Intelligent Transportation Systems business unit, Ralf Lenninger, told me in an interview that Continental is “in the process of equipping 1,000 rental cars for a proof of concept” trial of the keyless car.
“If you rent a car after arriving at the airport, you need to go stand in line to get a key – and that’s the only reason,” Lenninger said. He also pointed out that if you lose the keys to a rental car, companies charge around $250 for a replacement.
The keyless-car technology not only makes life easier for consumers, but also for rental car companies and other fleet operators. “It can be a nightmare to keep track of keys,” Lenninger said. “One of the largest fleets in the world is owned by Verizon – 1.6 million vehicles – and keys are a huge issue for them.”
While Continental is starting its rental car trial with an unnamed company later this year, the work on the technology has been going on for years. In 2015, Continental and the Belgian automotive service group D’leteren formed a joint venture called OTA Keys to provide access to fleet cars via mobile phones.
OTA Keys uses a phone’s near field communication (NFC) or the Bluetooth low energy capability to send secure info to a vehicle via a reader integrated into the doors. Another inside the car verifies the smartphone’s virtual key before the engine can be started.
Similar technology is already being used by car-sharing companies, but at the Frankfurt show Continental added another layer to virtual keys in case a car’s battery dies. For situations in which there isn’t a physical key available to get into a vehicle and open the hood, Continental unveiled an emergency unlocking technology that buffers a small amount of power in a door control unit to allow the locking mechanism to operate via a mobile device using NFC technology.
Of course, if your phone’s battery dies, you’ll have to wait for it to charge to unlock and start your car. And parking in an area without a cell signal could be a problem. But if car access and engine-starting going digital mean never having to search for car keys again – or hearing almost daily in my house, “Where are the car keys?” – then I’m all in.
Originally published by Forbes.com