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Your smartphone already has a plethora of helpful everyday capabilities, and it may eventually replace your car’s key fob. This is due to growing partnerships between smartphone manufacturers and automobile manufacturers.

Google is the most recent corporation to join the bandwagon. Google revealed the addition of an all-new digital vehicle key in its future Android 12 smartphone operating system during the company’s virtual I/O developer’s conference last month.

The new Android function, as the name suggests, produces a digital replica of a car key that is saved immediately on a cell phone. Like a conventional key fob, the digital key may then be used to lock, unlock, and start the car for which it was configured.

Phones having both Near-Field Communication (NFC) and Ultra Wideband (UWB) radios, according to Google, will be able to utilize the digital vehicle key functionality. Because the NFC protocol is more passive in design, drivers with NFC-equipped phones will need to bring their phones within tapping distance of the car in order to unlock or start their vehicle.

Phones equipped with more recent Ultra Wideband processors will benefit the most. These gadgets can remain in the driver’s pocket and unlock the car when the two come into contact.

Ultra-wideband transmits billions of low-power pulses over a wide frequency range. The car’s receivers (known as anchors) take up the phone’s pulses and convert them into useful data. The system can detect the precise location of the phone relative to the vehicle by employing numerous antennas and calculating the time it takes for the pulses to propagate between the device and the automobile. The technology is so exact that, in theory, the car could identify when a motorist aims their phone exactly at its door to signify an unlocking gesture—similar to how file sharing works with Apple’s new U1 Ultra Wideband processor.

Android’s choice is similar to Apple’s.

In the case of Apple, the iPhone company revealed a similar function in 2020, appropriately dubbed CarKey. The functionality works by producing a new virtual key for every compatible automobile in the iPhone’s Wallet app. These keys are often synchronized to the iPhone via a manufacturer’s app, an email, or even straight through the car’s infotainment screen. Once in the iPhone’s Wallet, the key may also be synced to the Apple Watch if you decide to go phoneless that day.

If the iPhone’s battery is depleted and the phone enters power reserve, the user can utilize “express mode,” which is activated by pressing the phone’s power button and seeing the battery icon, which indicates that a charge is required to turn on the device. Behind the scenes, the iPhone briefly powers up its NFC controller using reserve battery power and enables the usage of the digital key.

Both Android 12 and iOS enable key sharing, so if a family member or friend wants to borrow a car, just emailing a copy of the digital key directly to their compatible phone is all that is required.

For the time being, you’ll need a BMW.

The caveat is that the list of supported automobiles is currently somewhat limited. BMW was the first carmaker to collaborate with Apple as a result of their joint membership in the Connected Car Consortium; it intends to use digital keys throughout its whole portfolio. Similarly, it will be the first carmaker to collaborate with Google to integrate digital keys into the Android ecosystem. Google said it is currently collaborating with other automakers to broaden this offering throughout the industry.

Other automakers, such as Tesla, Hyundai, Lincoln, Mercedes-Benz, and others, have unique versions of digital keys. For example, Tesla’s technology connects to the automobile through a proximity-based bluetooth connection or from afar via the cellular network. Hyundai’s key uses the phone’s NFC radio (making it currently Android-only), whereas Lincoln employs a platform-independent Bluetooth low-energy connection.

While this technology is still in its early stages, expect to see more of it in the future. Samsung, the IT behemoth, stated earlier this year that it was seeking to getting other manufacturers on board with digital keys, including Audi, Ford, and Genesis, to name a few.

For the time being, Google says it will enable its digital vehicle key platform on certain Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones that have ultra-wideband technology built in. More phones are likely to enable the functionality as manufacturers implement support for digital keys and future phones get UWB capability.

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