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NXP Turns Any Smartphone, Smartwatch Into Car Keys

NXP Turns Any Smartphone, Smartwatch Into Car Keys
A new Near Field Communications protocol makes keyless starting standardized for all car makers and smart phone companies.

Image source: NXP Semiconductors

In support of the release of version 2.0 of the standardized digital key ecosystem specifications by the Car Connectivity Consortium, NXP Semiconductors has announced its new Digital Key Solution to let smartphones, key fobs and even devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers unlock and start customers’ cars.

While carmakers and smart phone companies have previously collaborated on proprietary solutions permitting phones to be used as car keys, version 2.0 of the CCC’s specification provides for all car and phone makers to work compatibly to provide this service.

“Our customers want cross-vendor interoperability,” explained Olaf Müller, head of Development Digital Access Systems at the BMW Group. “Standardization is the only way to achieve this; proprietary solutions are no longer beneficial.”

Ranier Lutz. Image source: NXP Semiconductors

The system works using Near Field Communications (NFC) technology like that used by credit cards and for mobile payments from phones through ApplePay and Google Pay.

“The 106 companies in the Car Connectivity Consortium, with literally all relevant car manufacturers, they all participate and agreed on one standard,” said Rainer Lutz, NXP’s Director of Digital Key and NFC Segments Secure Car Access.

Various mobile devices already have a secure microprocessor component to handle their payment capabilities and the mobile key feature can be added to them in the future to use this same existing hardware. Drivers need only tap the phone to the car door to open it or to the starter pad to enable the starter button.

A benefit of this compared to today’s commonplace keyless entry systems using a key fob is that the access to the car can be shared. That means drivers can grant other people the ability to use the car. “You can share the key with your neighbor who doesn’t have a car. ‘For the next half-day you can use my car.’ Or share with your kids but only with half the horsepower so they can’t do anything crazy.”

The key works for opening car trunks too, which could be used to accept delivered packages securely when you aren’t home, Lutz proposed. “You could grant a delivery driver one-time access to the trunk to leave a package,” he said

Obviously, the system is secured to prevent hackers from stealing your car, Lutz said. And the phone doesn’t provide any digital clues about the car it is able to start, so there won’t be any unscrupulous people sniffing around for phones that have access to expensive cars. “You don’t want your phone to tell everybody, ‘I have this Porsche and Bentley on my phone so please steal me,’” he noted.

Image source: BMW

The ability to work with smartwatches and fitness trackers means that athletes can lock their things inside the car before going to exercise and then open the car with their wearable device on their return to the car.

In the days of coronavirus quarantine, the technology could even be helpful, Lutz pointed out. Elderly car owners who can’t go out for groceries could grant young, carless neighbors access to their car to retrieve groceries without having to hand over and get back car keys.

There is no announced timetable for the rollout of cars with NXP’s Digital Key Solution built in, but they don’t seem likely to arrive before we are rid of this current plague, so we may have to settle for enjoying the non-virus-related benefits of the technology.

Dan Carney is a Design News senior editor, covering automotive technology, engineering and design, especially emerging electric vehicle and autonomous technologies.

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