Add-on module auto-unlocks your car when your phone is near

The second-gen Premium Bluetooth Keyless Entry module adds an extra layer of security and control to unlocking your car with your phone.

Bluetooth Keyless Entry module
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- For some time now, we've been anticipating the day that you'd be able to unlock your car by simply approaching it with your smartphone in your pocket. It turns out that the technology has been right under our noses.

The first generation of the Mobile Enhancement Specialist's (MES) Bluetooth Passive Keyless Entry module hit the market earlier this year and, after being professionally installed in almost any car with power locks, can automatically unlock the vehicle's doors when it recognizes your Bluetooth-enabled cellphone is within range. The phone doesn't even have to leave the driver's pocket; no button pressing required. As you leave the vehicle and exit the effective Bluetooth range, the car will automatically lock itself. According to MES, the module should work with any Bluetooth phone -- even my dad's Moto RAZR flip phone.

This week at the LA Auto Show, we learned about the second generation of this technology -- the Premium Bluetooth Passive Keyless Entry module -- boasting increased security.

Premium Bluetooth Keyless Entry app on iOS
The Premium Bluetooth Keyless Entry app gives the module 128-bit encrypted security and gives the owner control over its behavior. Mobile Enhancement Specialist

Where the original module worked by recognizing your phone's MAC address -- which could potentially be spoofed by tech-savvy ne'er-do-wells -- this new Premium module uses a companion app that is installed on your iOS device (requires iPhone 4S or newer) or Android device (requires Bluetooth Smart Ready device running Android 4.3 or higher ) and 128-bit encryption to increase security. The app runs in the background on the smartphone and handles the negotiation of the door locking and unlocking, giving the owner notifications of the vehicle's lock state. The Premium version also uses Bluetooth Low Energy to reduce battery drain on your smartphone.

However, by increasing security and requiring an iOS or Android app, the Premium module loses the "works with every Bluetooth phone" claim of the first generation, but that's a security trade off that I'd be willing to make. And unlike a telematics-based unlocking service like OnStar, the Bluetooth Passive Keyless Entry module handles all of the unlocking locally, without the need for a data connection, so there's no subscription fee to worry about.

You should also keep in mind that you'll still need your car's key on hand with both the Standard and Premium modules to start the engine -- the Bluetooth module will only unlock the doors -- and to get into your car in the event that your phone's battery dies. This isn't exactly a perfect keyless solution. OEM smart keyless entry and start systems are still a more elegant solution, but you can't easily add an OEM systems to your '96 Honda Civic. The Bluetooth Keyless Entry module sort of bridges that convenience-compatibility gap.

The Premium version of the module will ship starting in December 2013 with iPhone/iOS compatibility out of the box for $189.99. The release of the Android version of the Bluetooth Passive Keyless Entry app, and compatibility, will follow shortly. The original module is available now and will continue to be available for $149.

Would you like your car to automatically unlock when your phone is near, or are you happy just tapping a button on a remote fob? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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