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Digital keys open doors to opportunities

The digital key is a game changer in the automotive industry, not only for private vehicle owners, but more importantly for fleet managers. By Mark Thomas

Door key. House key. Car key. Ask anyone to think of a key, and they’ll most likely think of a metal device cut for a specific purpose—to open a gate, to unlock a door, or to activate something, such as a vehicle’s ignition. Even a vehicle’s so-called keyless entry system has a specific device—a key, fob, or card—linked exclusively to that vehicle.

Keyless entry saw key-in-lock evolve to fob-in-pocket. But the key is evolving again, moving to the cloud and opening the door to dramatic changes in business practices—far beyond the simple convenience of not having a key in your pocket.

Keyless entry may already be ubiquitous in mainstream vehicles, but it’ll be a long time before we dispense entirely with jagged metal house keys. Think about it, though: It’s probably been a long time since you last used a jagged metal hotel key—and there’s an interesting parallel between access to vehicles and hotel rooms. The hotel business—reliant upon security—has long been a keyless pioneer, but for too many years it used metal keys attached to unwieldy key fobs clearly displaying the hotel name and room number. Frankly, security was low—as was efficiency.

The key is evolving again, moving to the cloud and opening the door to dramatic changes in business practices

Game-changing technology

The hotel room key’s evolution was swift, with metal keys soon replaced by magstripe swipe cards, until the far superior RFID card became the modern-day standard. RFID enabled hotels to ditch the unwieldy metal key and fob, and embrace its versatility, by allocating guest access to premium hotel facilities. Now some hotel chains are offering app-based check-in and smartphone room keys—and that will be a game changer for the hotel industry.

The car key has been on a similar journey, from metal keys, via central locking, to remote keyless entry. The upper end of many vehicle models typically includes passive entry—enabling the keyholder to unlock and enter the vehicle with the key in their pocket—and often even passive start, which allows the driver to start the vehicle without physical contact with the key, provided it’s inside the vehicle.

Those for whom a physical key has always been the norm (and works perfectly fine, thank you very much) may consider the concept of a digital key nothing more than that: a concept. But the idea that a service should be tied to a physical key is an idea tied to the past. A physical key is assigned to a vehicle; a digital key is assigned to a driver. A physical key may open a door, vehicle, or building, but a digital key opens opportunities—and in so doing, brings the concept of the key right up to date.

Anyone currently too young to drive but old enough to have a smartphone will know only of a world in which everything can be done with an app and a tap. Smartphones are fully flexible and customisable, enabling services on demand. The use of a smartphone isn’t just convenient, it’s become the basis of everything, everywhere.

A physical key is assigned to a vehicle; a digital key is assigned to a driver

A game changer for the hotel industry, the digital key will do the same for the automotive industry, not only for private vehicles owners, but perhaps more importantly beleaguered fleet managers. Digital key technology has powerful potential. With keycard, Bluetooth, and NFC (near field communication)-based keyless solutions, fleet managers can assign access to a vehicle, know who is driving it, enable drivers to reserve vehicles, remotely unlock doors, and, if necessary, even revoke access.

Physical keys put the onus on drivers to ensure the security of the vehicle and its cargo. But lost keys cost money. And stolen vehicles cost more—in terms of damaged or stolen company assets, third-party goods taken from the vehicle, and time spent recovering vehicles. Vehicle recovery can take weeks, not just to find the vehicle, but also to release it if impounded for evidence, and then there’s the time and money lost on the whole process and associated legal proceedings.

Delivery fleets know only too well the vulnerability of the vehicle and its goods when the driver gets out to make a delivery. But with a digital key, the vehicle senses the driver’s location relative to the vehicle, locks and immobilises the vehicle, and releases it when the driver returns.

Stolen vehicle recovery is simplified, too, with fleet managers able to remotely immobilise the vehicle. Indeed, digital keys can drastically reduce vehicle recovery time, with successful recovery many times faster than calling local law enforcement, ensuring that the vehicle gets back into fleet operations in hours, rather than weeks.

Physical keys lock doors to opportunity

Back, then, to the car key’s evolution from fob-in-pocket to the true keyless technology that will eventually become standard. A standard needs standardisation, with all stakeholders singing the same song—from software suppliers to automotive suppliers and the automakers themselves. Fleets want all the benefits of a standardised ecosystem that enables the use of mobile devices as digital keys. But evolution doesn’t happen overnight, so we can expect fleets in transition to combine different software, hardware, and management solutions as they seek to ditch the key.

With the automotive industry transitioning to the software-defined vehicle, the potential of the digital key will grow exponentially

For fleets, physical keys lock the door to opportunities. Fleet key management—the holding of master keys, the cutting of replacement keys, and the allocation of physical keys to drivers—all needs more than a standard 9-to-5 workday. By contrast, digital key management can tick over behind the scenes, 24/7.

Unlike physical keys, app-based digital keys open doors to opportunities. Users can share multiple keys and grant permission to known devices anywhere in the world. Digital keys are great for delivery fleet managers, ride-sharing, and rental fleets—fleet managers can control which vehicle features can be used and even assign permissions to specific areas of the vehicle, such as limiting access to the passenger cabin or trunk, or enabling entry to but not operation of the vehicle.

Major automakers such as BMW, Hyundai and Tesla; tech companies such as Apple, and fleet suppliers such as Ridecell, Denso and Geotab are all working on making the key in the cloud a ubiquitous part of a vehicle fleet. And with the automotive industry transitioning to the software-defined vehicle, the potential of the digital key will grow exponentially, as the power of the vehicle operating system is leveraged to enable ever-more digital key–related features.

Farewell, then, to the US$1,000-plus “look-at-me” premium car key fob; farewell to the chaotic fleet key pool; and farewell to lost and damaged keys. It’s time to say RIP to the physical key and give a warm welcome to NFC and the digital key.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.

Mark Thomas is Executive Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Marketing at Ridecell

The Automotive World Comment column is open to automotive industry decision makers and influencers. If you would like to contribute a Comment article, please contact


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