Smartphones key to unlocking vehicle technology

Smartphone being used to open a car

Craig Duff

Posted December 01, 2021

Smartphones are the future of integrating with the 'Internet of Things'. Our vehicles are just a start.

Whether we’re scanning QR codes, attending meetings, playing games, or presenting vaccination certificates, smartphones are becoming critical to being able to participate in society.

Smartphones now also may be the reason we say goodbye to our car keys.

Mercedes-Benz pioneered the trend in its 2016 E-Class, closely followed by Elon Musk with the Model 3 electric vehicle that launched in 2017. Since then, every car maker has researched the technology.

The convenience of being able to unlock and start the car without fumbling through pockets or bags for a key fob is only one of the perks of driving a modern vehicle, not to mention that people tend to misplace their keys more than they do their phone.

Many of the apps can be configured to automatically lock and unlock the car as the phone moves out of and into range of the vehicle, and some versions can be programmed to turn on the headlamps and unlock specific doors - handy if you’re in a dark carpark after hours.

The apps are also becoming increasingly sophisticated and smarter with every update.

Smartphone applications for your car

Estimating remaining driving range based on the amount of fuel or charge in the car.

The capacity to set ‘geo-fences' and receive alerts if the car moves out of that area and/or exceeds a pre-set speed when someone else is driving it.

A ‘car locator' to help find your vehicle in large carparks, or to direct you to the car if another family member has dropped it off.

A predictive tyre life feature, with artificial intelligence used to assess how you drive, how far, and suggest that the rubber may need replacing.

Owners of electric vehicles can typically pre-set the climate system to adjust the temperature before they get in the vehicle and schedule when the battery charging starts when the car is at home.

Drivers of some Hyundai and Kia EVs can even use their phones to adjust performance parameters such as the maximum torque output of the motor, acceleration and deceleration abilities, regenerative braking capacity, how much energy the climate control system can use.


woman's smartphone updating her car from bmw group

As well as opening our cars, smartphone have the technology to give us service updates and our vehicle status. Image: BMW. 

Share keys with a click 

Another major advantage of having an app on your smartphone is the ability to share it with friends and family as required. Along with being able to set parameters on the secondary keys to limit most aspects of the vehicle, be that top speed or audio volume - just wait for the kids to complain the stereo is broken the first time they try to bounce the speakers out of the brackets. 

The technology has also been embraced by car rental companies, who find it more convenient and quicker to manage customers and staff via an app than it is to have to deal with multiple sets of keys. From the customers’ point of view, an app will likely cease the need to physically front up at the counter just to collect a set of keys. 

If your car doesn’t have a factory-supplied app, it is still possible to use a smartphone for some of the more regular functions. Aftermarket products work by fitting an adaptor to the vehicle’s OBD2 port, which is the onboard diagnostic fitting service technicians use to read error codes from the vehicle’s computer. Supplied software then virtually couples the adaptor to the phone, typically letting owners lock and start the car. 

As Tesla owners recently discovered, no technology is bullet-proof. About 500 users reported they couldn’t use their app to access their vehicles, according to outage monitoring website Downdetector

While Tesla hadn’t given a detailed explanation for the five-hour outage, Musk tweeted: “Should be coming back online now. Looks like we may have accidentally increased the verbosity of network traffic. Apologies, we will take measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again. 

The tech behind the tech 

Digital keys operate on a standardized set of protocols devised by the Car Connectivity Consortium, which represents most car manufacturers, including Audi, BMW, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and the Volkswagen Group. 

The first protocols were released in 2018 

The most recent version was launched in July and uses ultra-wideband radio technology to detect when a paired phone is within range. Bluetooth Low Energy then authenticates the digital key and unlocks the car. 

Previous versions used Near Field Communication - the same technology you use when scanning your smartphone to make a payment - and this release also provide backward compatibility with that system. 

The technology isn’t restricted to use in cars: smart locks for the home have been around for almost a decade and operate on the same smartphone-based principle. 

It seems only a matter of time before we say goodbye to our sets of keys.  

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