Why we’re excited for the future of digital car keys

At SHARE NOW, we’re often proud to communicate that car-sharing allows you to rent and unlock a car using just your smartphone. With most of the cars in our fleet, this means that you never actually have to take a key and turn it in the ignition - everything is digital. But it’s not just the car-sharing pioneers that are evolving the way drivers unlock and start their cars. In the regular consumer motoring business, manufacturers have constantly been evolving the car key for almost a century now.

Did you know that up until the 1960s, drivers had to carry at least two keys for their cars? One to open the doors and another one to start the engine. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first keyless systems were introduced. You may think the humble car key is a complete invention – one that needs no further evolution – but you’d be wrong.

Whether you want to call them digital car keys, apps, or something else, the future of car keys is going to look very different than it did just a few years ago. And that's a good thing. There are several advantages to car keys going digital – and, naturally, some drawbacks – and we’ve put together this list of features that we’re most excited about in the near future. Here’s why we can’t wait for digital car keys to go mainstream.

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You can’t lose digital car keys

For as long as keys have existed, products and even entire industries have revolved around the simple act of losing them, from keyrings to locksmiths to Apple AirTags. Make sure you keep that spare in a safe place, they used to say! Digital car keys cannot be lost. Sure, you can lose your phone, but the key to your car not only lives on your phone but also in the cloud. Digital car keys can be backed up like the rest of your digital data. Reinstalling your key onto a new device from a backup is as simple as getting your WhatsApp chats back. Plus, who goes anywhere without their phone these days? They even go to the bathroom with us!

Digital car keys can be shared easily

As pioneers of car-sharing, we think most people don’t need to own cars at all, but for families that are switching from two or even three cars to a single vehicle, sharing the keys needs to be safe and efficient. In the past, this meant handing over physical keys. Or if both people cannot be present at the same time, the classic hiding place on the top of one of the tyres! Sharing digital car keys is as quick and easy as sending a message. When you store your digital car key in an app like Apple’s Wallet, you can send the car key over iMessage. The recipient can then unlock and start the car using their phone.

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Digital car keys are safer than you think

OK, so you’re sending the keys to your beloved vehicle over iMessage and it all feels very futuristic but what about security? Does this mean your car can be hacked? Actually, digital car keys are a lot safer than you think. The architecture is strictly standardised by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), a cross-industry organisation advancing global technologies for smartphone-to-car connectivity solutions. The latest standard, CCC Digital Key 3.0, adopts ultra-wideband (UWB) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) wireless communication technologies - both of which are much more secure than the RFID technology typically used in smart key fobs.

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Digital car keys are perfect for car-sharing

As any driver who has used SHARE NOW will know, using your smartphone to unlock and drive cars was possible long before Digital Key 3.0 and the true digital car keys we see emerging today. However, until now solutions have generally involved keyless ignitions and remote unlocking software on the side of the operator. You may unlock the car with your phone and hit the Start/Stop button to get the engine running, but the physical key is usually hidden somewhere in the car as it’s still technically needed. SHARE NOW uses a whole host of in-house software and in-car hardware to make this happen. Digital car keys could streamline this in the future.

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This is just the beginning

And speaking of the future, this really is just the beginning for the digital car key. What we are really heading towards are apps that provide digital access to all aspects of our vehicles. Look at what Tesla does with the Tesla app, for example. It’s not only the key to the car. Drivers can see a wealth of data about their car in real-time, such as the current range and whether or not any doors or the boot is open. As this can be done from anywhere, you can set the car’s air conditioning to your desired temperature before you get to your car. It’s even possible to “summon” your car and have it autonomously drive to where you are to pick you up! Digital car keys are just the beginning.

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Just don’t run out of battery

One of the biggest downsides of switching over to digital products is the fact that digital devices can die. This naturally adds an extra layer of ‘risk’ when it comes to having digital airline tickets, digital credit cards, and digital car keys. It is true that if your phone runs out of battery or breaks down, you will lose access to your digital car key, but it’s not like your engine just turns off on the motorway or anything. Apple’s digital car keys work for up to 5 hours after your iPhone dies, for example. Most modern cars have USB and even wireless charging options these days too.

David McCourt

David McCourt

Sr. Editorial Content Strategist

"Own less, share more."

David is on a mission to improve the quality of life in cities through modern mobility solutions.