The end of the car key is right around the corner

Its demise will delight some, infuriate others - like most things car tech.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
2 min read

Car keys are pretty silly. Almost everything else in the modern car has become connected, electronic and elegant but the car key hangs around, dragging down our pants and getting lost in our bags.  Fortunately, the demise of the physical car key is starting  It will delight some and infuriate others, like most things in car tech.
The new Tesla Model 3 is the first mass production car without a key. A Tesla app on your phone connects to the via Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) to handle locking and what used to be known as starting which, in an EV, is more like power authorization.  Volvo will also be introducing a limited number of cars this year that trade a key for an app.

The benefits include one less chunky car key to carry, get batteries for and spend hundreds of dollars replacing if you lose it. Virtual keys are also a breeze to give and take back from people who may need access to your car now and then.  And an app can personalize your car to a degree electronic fobs and preset buttons just can't. 

On the other hand, if your phone is lost or dead you'll need to have a backup key which, in Tesla's case, would be an NFC card you keep in your wallet or bag. Tens of millions of Americans don't even own a smartphone, but likely have a car. And keyless cars raise new concerns about hacking, though if you bank, fly, or go to a doctor I argue you've already accepted similar risk.

Keyless cars aren't entirely new. Car share services have used mobile keyless technology for a few years to grant members access to a car they have reserved, though the driver typically uses a traditional key once inside the car. 

The logical extension of all this is to move beyond car keys to the entire access market: Home, car and workplace access should progress together toward standards akin to the keys and rings of yore. Today we have a patchwork of apps, keypads, fingerprints and NFC cards across homes, cars and commercial buildings. That's not better, that's just digital. 

In step with that we need to see the major mobile platforms get behind uniform key support in the core of their mobile operating systems the way payments have rapidly done. Such an embrace could also do wonders for both parties' smartwatch efforts as it gives that niche device one more reason to be.