The day is dawning when vehicle owners never may have to look for their car keys again.
Continental AG has developed a technology that allows smartphones to unlock a car door and start the engine.
Continental is marketing its virtual key to car-rental agencies, corporate fleet owners and car-sharing services. If the concept proves practical, automakers could offer vehicle buyers virtual keys as a supplement -- perhaps even as an eventual replacement -- to traditional key fobs.
It was inevitable. Automakers have been perfecting car keys for decades, taking them from jangly metal things to sophisticated, chip-embedded brand statements.
The bulky things won't disappear overnight, says Mike Crane, Continental AG's North American vice president of body and security.
"For the near future -- maybe the next seven to 10 years -- the virtual key and the physical key fob will coexist," he predicted. "Both will be the property of the car owner."
But the German mega-supplier already has sold its technology to fleet customers in Europe, and this year, it will equip the fleet of an unnamed corporate customer in North America.
And Crane reveals that for the 2018 model year, an automaker he declined to identify will introduce Continental's technology as original equipment on a limited basis.
Here's how the virtual key works for rental cars:
Customers reserve vehicles online and receive an app to download to their smartphones. The rental agency transmits a virtual key via the cloud to the customer's smartphone.
On arriving at the rental agency, travelers use their phone to unlock the vehicle and start the engine. After the customer returns the car, the app cancels the virtual key.
Initially, the user's smartphone will use its Bluetooth connectivity to communicate with an adapter plugged into the vehicle's OBD-II port. The adapter, in turn, uses a radio frequency to pass along the "engine start" signal to the vehicle.
The original-equipment version coming for 2018 will not require an adapter.
There are curious new considerations around the technology.
What if car owners want to lend their car to someone else? In that case, the owner would use their smartphone app to authorize the new driver, who could then use his or her own smartphone as a virtual key.
And what about security? The onboard electronics have the same built-in security features as a traditional key fob, while the smartphone app uses software developed for online banking.
Virtual keys also could offer benefits to car rental companies, which could eliminate paperwork and long customer waiting lines. In fact, rental companies already are tinkering with smartphone apps similar to Continental's technology.
One rental agency -- Silvercar of Austin, Texas -- already has dispensed with airline checkout counters. By using a smartphone app, Silvercar customers can reserve an Audi A4. And when they emerge from baggage claim, a Silvercar concierge meets them at the curb and gives them a lift to the rental lot.
After customers use their smartphone to scan a bar code on the vehicle's windshield, the doors and trunk unlock. To start the car, travelers use a traditional key fob stored in the center console.
Audi has taken a financial stake in Silvercar, but Audi of America spokesman Mark Clothier downplays retail prospects for Silvercar's virtual key at this time.
Silvercar's smartphone app "is designed to allow multiple users access to a fleet of vehicles, whether rental, shared fleets or dealership service fleets," Clothier wrote in an email.
Does Audi foresee a day when physical key fobs might become optional? "Anything is possible," Clothier said.
Analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research believes virtual keys will catch on quickly in the retail market.
"I think it could be a very useful option for retail customers," Abuelsamid said. "Smartphones are ubiquitous. Almost everyone is using a smartphone now."
Anyone who borrows or rents a car could use their smartphone to download their favorite radio stations, seating position, phone book and calendar. But the user would have to make sure that the phone's battery stays charged.
But what if the battery dies? Abuelsamid envisions automakers providing a small spare key -- just a key blade, without the fob -- that car owners could keep in their wallet. They could use it to open the door, plug in their phone and start the engine.
Even if smartphones don't entirely replace key fobs, Abuelsamid believes they will become popular quickly. "If you have your phone, you can leave your key fob behind," he said. "That's one less thing in your pocket."
> A CENTURY OF CAR KEYS
Insert metal key. Turn. Car starts.
Automakers and suppliers never could leave well enough alone when it came to vehicle ignition. Rugged mechanics gave way to gentle coaxing, which gave way to brand awareness, which now gives way to technical wizardry.
Here is how car keys have evolved over the decades.
Watch that spin! A strong arm and fast reflexes were needed to turn the cranks of early cars. The mechanism was even dangerous. Numerous crank injuries resulted from engine backfires or when a car lunged toward the crank operator if it was left in gear.
■ Simplification: Charles Kettering introduced the electric self-starter in 1911. The method debuted on a 1912 Cadillac, helping simplify and revolutionize car ownership.
■ Behold the key: Chrysler was the first automaker to introduce ignition-starting with a key, in 1949, according to a 1964 issue of Popular Science. Metal ignition keys looked little different from a house key — creating a new phenomenon of searching for the right one on a crowded key ring in the dark.
■ Gaining notice: Automakers began to encase their keys in plastic ends to make them easier to identify — but also allowing carmakers to draw more attention to brand logos.
■ Switchblade: Folding keys completely encased in plastic holders could spring out like a switchblade. No more metal jangling in your pocket.
■ Keyless concepts: Starting in 1980, Ford allowed drivers to get into a locked car by push-button keypads on the driver’s door.
■ The fob: Automakers arrived at a technological crossroads. A chip-embedded fob — coming in all shapes and sizes — could be inserted to allow ignition. But it begged a new question: Why does it have to be inserted?
■ Push-button starters: Push-button ignition showed up in Mercedes-Benz models in the late 1990s, and today they are the norm. But drivers still have to have a physical key with them.
■ Tantalizing tech: GM’s OnStar unit opened the door to remote key functions in 1996, allowing drivers in trouble to unlock their doors and even start the car via satellite command.
■ Premium fobs: BMW wows drivers with a digital touch-screen fob for functions such as remote locking, driving data and even remote parking. It became an option on the i8 in 2015 and is also available on the 7 series.
-- Jack Walsworth
You can reach David Sedgwick at [email protected]