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Self-Driving Cars: Smartphones as Key Fobs Could Be Next Big Thing

A virtual car key (VCK) is coming soon to a vehicle near you. “What’s a VCK?” you ask. It’s a self-driving-cars-type technology that, in effect, turns your smartphone into a fully functioning key fob and more. “Why would I need such a thing?” might well be your next question. As with a lot of cutting-edge technology, you don’t need it, not really; however, you might just find it darn handy. Not to mention there are some applications in which it may prove more than just handy. It may be almost indispensable.

Already there are carmakers integrating smartphones into a vehicle’s infotainment system. It’s not a giant leap to think at some point, your smartphone could be all you need to operate your car. Several electric vehicles have apps for monitoring battery levels and charging — Nissan Leaf’s NissanConnect, for example. In a future with self-driving cars, the smartphone app would include issuing commands to your vehicle, such as where and when to pick you up. Key fobs will be obsolete.

According to the experts at Gemalto, an international digital security company highly involved in the development of VCK technology, where your key fob is limited in its functions, a virtual car key could provide all manner of services and information, as well as be easily and securely shared.

Early Adapters

Although there are a few carmakers currently developing VCK technology (Mercedes-Benz for its “Mercedes me” feature and BMW’s Digital Key, for example), VCK will probably find its greatest acceptance in commercial applications. Just as driverless technology initially will probably find its widest acceptance in mass transit and trucking, VCK will have huge appeal to fleet managers and rental-car companies. Why? Because keeping track of and storing massive numbers of keys and key fobs is immensely challenging.

For a business with multiple vehicles shared among numerous drivers, a VCK makes huge sense. Whether it’s a rental company or a fleet of trucks, sending a driver a digital key is much simpler than transferring a physical key or key fob.

Avis is currently beta testing its VCK program with 5,000 vehicles in Kansas City, Missouri. For Avis, this trial isn’t only about the functionality of the VCK, but also the added convenience and service of establishing several pickup points around the city. Renters will be able to find a vehicle close to them, avoid the line at a service desk and drive their rental away without any physical human contact. When the rental is completed, the car is returned to a close-by lot, and the digital key is canceled.

Consumer Use

In its current stage of development, VCK can be shared among several smartphones. For a family of drivers, that means if you have your smartphone, you have the key to the shared car. It also means parents will be able to set parameters of use by a young driver through his or her smartphone. Lending your car to a neighbor or friend is as easy as sending the VCK, which you can cancel at any time.

Think about the convenience of unlocking your car by simply holding your smartphone up to the car’s door handle, as the digital key that’s being supported by Gemalto for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class does.


Although it seems there might be extraordinary security issues involved with smartphones acting as digital keys, they are no less secure than today’s key fobs. It’s all a matter of encryption. And, unlike a key fob lost through carelessness or to thieves, your smartphone has its own layer of security that must be foiled before access is gained.

What it means to you: According to the folks at Gemalto, the virtual car key for use in production cars is just around the corner. Think of it as just another advancement in smartphone technology.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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