NXP's NFC tech lets you unlock cars with a phone

Chipmaker NXP announced that five automakers will implement its Near Field Communication technology into door handles, letting drivers use phones and other devices to access their cars.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
2 min read
NXP's NCx3320 NFC chip

NXP's NCx3320 NFC chip is designed to fit into car door handles, and tolerate extreme heat and cold.


Just as people have become used to paying for coffee with their smartphones, they will soon be able to unlock their car doors the same way. Chipmaker NXP announced today that it is working with five automakers to implement its Near Field Communication technology (NFC) in car door handles.

NXP's NCx3320 NFC chip fits inside a typical car door handle, meets automotive requirements to tolerate very high and very low temperatures, and includes a low power mode so it can operate even when a car's battery lacks the juice to start the engine.

Many new cars come with a key fob using an RFID chip, letting drivers merely approach the car to unlock it, and start the engine at the push of a button. As handset makers build NFC into smartphones for payment services and other identification requirements, that technology can also be adapted for car access, engine start-up and even quick Bluetooth pairing.

NXP's Rainer Lutz, director of new business, said the technology is designed to be complementary to typical key fob access. Where a key fob's RFID signal opens a car from tens of feet away, NFC's range maxes out at 10 centimeters, so it might not be as convenient for daily use. However, NFC "keys" can be created on a temporary basis, creating greater flexibility. A car owner could grant someone else access to their car for a set amount of time, all through a phone app.

The flexibility of NFC access makes it an enabler for car sharing services.

Addressing the issue of security, Lutz says "If you look at where NFC comes from, it's used by governments for e-Passports and in the banking industry for payments. There are a lot of checks and standards in place to allow devices to authenticate." Devices communicating over NFC use a one-time encrypted key to ensure they are legitimate.

Due to corporate agreements, NXP would not specify with which automakers it is working on NFC. Early implementation will likely include an NFC touchpoint in the driver's door handle, and one inside the car. An interior NFC chip would let drivers set their phones down on the console, automatically loading seating position and other preferences, and enabling engine start.

The conveniences provided by NFC look to make it a new selling point for cars over the next few years.

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Editor's note: This article has been corrected. It previously stated that the Mercedes-Benz E-Class uses an NXP NFC chip in its door handle. That information is incorrect.