Given the vast leaps in technology society has made in the last decade, it seems antiquated that most new vehicles still require a key fob. Sure, some trend-setting OEM’s have started to ditch the key, but we’re hardly in the keyless era of automotive. That said, digital keys will quickly become the standard over the next couple of years.

Apple cast the limelight on digital keys last year at its WWDC by announcing Apple CarKey. CarKey is really the tech industry’s first standard digital key API, developed in conjunction with the Car Connectivity Consortium. In its first iteration, CarKey relies solely on Near Field Communication (NFC) as a means of authenticating an iPhone with a vehicle. The NFC version of CarKey was first introduced on the refreshed BMW 5-Series in mid-2020.

When Apple announced CarKey they also disclosed that CarKey will ultimately utilize the iPhone U1 Ultra Wideband chip, but details were sort of vague at the time. The lack of clarity is centered on the fact that the industry think-tank hasn’t finalized UWB standards.

Current Standard

Developing digital key standards is incredibly important. This is why most major automakers have signed onto the Car Connectivity Consortium. The CCC just ratified their Digital Key Release 2.0 Specifications back in May. Unsurprisingly, the standards align very closely with the first iteration of Apple CarKey. Like CarKey, the standards leverage NFC technology to allow drivers to unlock and start their vehicle with their smartphone.

Anyone who has leveraged their smartphone as a payment method knows about NFC. NFC requires the smartphone or smart watch to be very close to the receiver, a limitation shared with this vehicle application. Drivers have to hold their device up to the exterior door handle to unlock the vehicle. Subsequently, the phone has to be placed on an NFC reader in the interior for the vehicle to start.

One benefit of NFC is that the standard does stipulate it function even when the smartphone’s battery is dead. In general the NFC function should still operate for up to 5 hours after a dead battery.

While NFC is the new standard, some automakers are utilizing different technologies today. For example, Ford is already leveraging Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for its digital key. The Ford digital key was first offered in certain Lincoln products. Given the ratification of the CCC digital key standards, expect to see more NFC key options in the short term.

Future Digital Keys

While the CCC just finalized its Digital Key 2.0 standards, it’s already working on 3.0. The consortium recognizes the limitations of NFC, namely the requirement that users have to actually pick up their phone to use the service. Future standards will rely heavily on UWB technology. UWB will allow the car to determine a person’s precise location within a few centimeters. This location will happen with no intervention on the part of the driver. The car’s knowledge of the driver’s exact location also allows automakers to tailor the car’s actions to location. Essentially, the location information enables parity between smartphones and today’s passive key fobs.

For example, the car could illuminate the lights when the driver is 30-feet from the vehicle, but at three-feet it unlocks the doors. Subsequently, UWB allows the vehicle to know if the smartphone is inside the vehicle or not, eliminating the need to place the smartphone on an NFC reader.

UWB and BLE combined will unlock many new use cases for digital keys. Drivers could give trunk-only access to a delivery service. Valets could be provided very restricted access for a finite amount of time; same goes for friends you may not trust with your vehicle.

One downfall to UWB is that it will require the smartphone to be powered up, unlike NFC. To solve for this issue, automakers are likely going to rely on NFC as a backup for digital key services. So cars of the future will likely be equipped with three technologies for digital keys: UWB, BLE and NFC.

Automotive supplier Continental is a major player when it comes to UWB. Back in June the company announced that three “major” automakers have issued purchase orders for their UWB-powered digital key solution. As of now they have not identified who their clients are, but confirm that production will start in 2021.

The announcement, despite its vagueness, suggests we’ll start seeing UWB digital keys in the 2022 model year. The big question is which brands will roll them out first. The usability of UWB will also hinge on how quickly handset manufacturers add UWB chipsets to their devices. For now Apple iPhone is the biggest player with an UWB chip.

So while it feels like the industry has lagged when it comes to digital keys, expect a rapid acceleration in the next couple of years. NFC-only options will proliferate 2021, with UWB options hitting shortly thereafter.