May 2016, west coast of Sweden. In Gothenburg Airport’s arrival hall, a woman stops, takes out her smartphone and launches Sunfleet, a location and car sharing app developed by a Volvo subsidiary. Using geolocation, the app shows her where the rental car is parked, which she reserved from Belgium before taking off. When she gets to the Volvo V40, she opens the door, which is already unlocked, gets in and starts the engine. All without taking out a physical ignition key.
This woman is the first customer to use Volvo’s latest innovation, the “digital key”, a snippet of computer code generated by the rental company, which is then picked up on her app, and which the car recognizes by connecting to her smartphone via Bluetooth. The Swedish car maker announced the launch of this experiment at the last Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Gothenburg Airport will be the real-world test site before the device is rolled out in 2017, if all goes well. “We are going to start with employees who commute to Belgium and pick up rental cars to get to their offices. Three cars will be fitted with the technology to start with, a V40, a V60 and an XC90. We will then ramp it up to twenty or so cars,” says Martin Rosenqvist, Services & New Technologies Director at Volvo Car Group.
The safety and reliability of the device are some of the challenges of this initial testing. It goes far beyond “smart keys” that just open doors. Already on social networks, skeptical comments point to the possibility of key codes being hacked or the smartphone’s battery dying. But once fully secure and rolled out fully, digital car keys will well and truly open up new horizons for use.
For example, for rental cars, the customer won’t need to go to the rental agency to pick up the keys. The agency just needs to send the digital key to the client’s phone. It is also a valuable tool for car sharing. A single key can be used by several persons, if the owner or car-sharing manager enters the necessary data: the identities of the other drivers, their respective time slots, where they will pick up the car, etc. With this information, it will also be possible to bill the cost of fuel and servicing by kilometer and time, and allocate parking charges… and traffic tickets.
This solution is not new and, as often happens, is an extension and improvement of a previous innovation. In Sweden, Audi had previously tested an app for friends to share a car by the year plus additional months. Combined with a beacon, the app recognizes the driver and calculates the cost per co-renter (proportion of rental and fuel charges).
The disappearance of physical keys seems inevitable. Our car keys are one of the many everyday keys that are moving, slowly but surely, to digital technology. House keys, hotel keys, letterbox keys, and even bike keys, notes the website Digital Commute, have already moved to keys consisting of digital code and not atoms. The benefit of such “smart locks” is that you can precisely profile the key you leave to a babysitter or plumber, so they can open your door with their smartphone and only at the times you’ve agreed.