For just about everything we do these days, "there's an app for that." Is the car key destined to become one more little tile on a smartphone screen?
The thought hit me recently while interviewing Broadcom executive Tom Ramsthaler, responsible for product marketing of wireless connectivity. In discussing the company's upcoming 802.11ac/Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) combo chip, Ramsthaler explained to me what he envisions as in-vehicle applications enabled by Bluetooth LE.
He talked about Nissan Watch, unveiled at the Frankfurt Auto Show last month. The smartwatch, using a Bluetooth LE connection, gathers telemetry data from a car so that it can show the driver the car's efficiency information, such as fuel consumption, while also tracking performance. The Nissan Watch also monitors certain parameters of driver health, like heart rate in a traffic jam.
OK, mildly interesting. But hardly the mass market product that will prompt every carmaker to embrace Bluetooth LE, I thought. However, Ramsthaler mentioned offhand that Bluetooth LE would be useful as a smart car key.
Now I'm interested.
As I recall, NXP, armed with the lion's share in the smart car key market, had been thinking along these lines. NXP came up with a single-chip solution for multi-function car keys using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. The idea is for keys to connect to external NFC-compliant devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. Announcing the product, called KEyLink Lite, NXP talked about potential "smart" key applications including car finder, route planner, and car status/service data management.
So, now that Broadcom is coming to the automotive market with Bluetooth LE chips, will we be seeing an NFC vs. Bluetooth LE battle brewing in the smart car key market?
Or better yet, will there be a day when we can do away with our car keys and flip open a car door simply by waving the phone?
Not so fast.
Talking to several executives at the European Microelectronics Summit, I quickly realized that using a smartphone to enter a car is actually not a smart idea.
Ian Riches, director of global automotive practice at Strategy Analytics, agreed that unlocking a car with a smartphone is possible. But he cautioned: "The problem is that a lot of people go inside a car to charge their smartphones. What if your smartphone already ran out of battery? You can't even open your car door!"
I broached the subject with Drue Freeman, vice president of global sales and marketing in the automotive business unit for NXP Semiconductors, who was also a presenter at the European Microelectronics Summit. Freeman told me, "You need to understand that car keys must last longer than cars."
Indeed, that's the first hurdle for any attempt to use a smartphone as a car key. Consumers swap smartphones roughly every 1.5 years. The average car lasts more than eight years.
While acknowledging that opening a car with an NFC-enabled smartphone could be done, Freeman posed a more salient matter of convenience.
In the current generation of keyless entry for cars, a smart key system disengages the immobilizer and activates the ignition without inserting a key in the ignition. The system uses LF (low frequency, 125 kHz) and RF (radio frequency, >300 MHz). It works by having a series of LF transmitting antennas both inside and outside the vehicle. External antennas are in the door handles. When the vehicle is triggered, an LF signal is transmitted from the antennas to the key. The key activates if it is sufficiently close, and it transmits its ID back to the vehicle via RF to a receiver located in the vehicle.
Applying NFC in a smartphone to the car security system is certainly feasible. But the driver still needs to walk up to a car and physically open the door -- unless the smartphone is also integrated with an LF/RF-based keyless entry system.
Freeman explained, "With a smartphone, it's a two-step process. In contrast, the smart car key you use today can remotely flip a car open -- instantly," without fiddling with your smartphone first.
But let's be clear: The idea of unlocking and locking the car and then starting the ignition with a phone has haunted the minds of some carmakers, such as Hyundai.
By using an embedded NFC tag in the car, Hyundai has designed a system that allows owners to unlock a vehicle, start the engine, and link up to the touchscreen with a quick swipe. The Korean automaker showed earlier this year what the company calls its "Connectivity Concept" in a demonstration i30 hatchback car.
So, the idea of a smartphone as your car key has been percolating for a few years, and it has gotten some attention from carmakers. Can a Bluetooth LE be that key?
One might say: Why not?
The first step in proving the feasibility of this concept is to make sure there is absolutely no EMC interference between a Bluetooth-based smart car key and the electronics inside the vehicle. Perhaps more important, Bluetooth LE requires power (albeit low energy). NFC connectivity "does not require a power supply in the key, hence does not affect the key's battery lifetime," according to NXP's spokesperson. "Setting up a connectivity link is done by a touch and would not require an exchange pairing credential upfront." In sum, NFC allows carmakers to focus on convenience and security.
Even assuming that either wireless technology -- NFC or Bluetooth -- works fine as a smart car key, technology suppliers need to clear one more hurdle.
NXP's Freeman explained that for a carmaker, the branded car key establishes the first and the most significant physical and tactile contact with car owners. Automotive companies might not be so eager to give up that precious branding opportunity to a smartphone -- which bears no automotive brand.
For the time being, the NFC vs. Bluetooth LE battleground is likely to be focused more on connecting a smart car key with a smartphone (or any wearable smart device), rather than a smartphone replacing a car key.
According to NXP, the company's multi-function car key using NFC is "one member of a complete new product family designed for Smart Access solutions." The product family debuts in the market with model year 2013 vehicles.
This blog originally appeared on EETimes.