The demise of the car key: Tesla, Lincoln lead auto industry in ditching keys for mobile entry

Tesla Model 3 owners do not receive traditional car keys or fobs. Instead, the automaker provides them with a keycard and smartphone app to gain access and operate the car.

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DETROIT — Key fobs and emerging virtual, or digital, keys from the likes of Tesla and Lincoln are increasingly making traditional metal car keys obsolete as more of the industry’s newest models come equipped with mobile entry.

The change, which has accelerated in recent years, means more convenience and safety for drivers but also ends the age-old tradition of teenagers receiving their first car and feeling the engine turnover for the first time. Keyless cars also come with their own unique challenges.

Instead of keys being inserted into an ignition, the majority of new vehicles being offered in the U.S. are equipped with push-button starters that wirelessly connect to plastic fobs or smartphones to allow drivers to start their engines with a push of a button.

“This trend is obviously going to continue,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of industry analysis for consumer auto research firm Edmunds. “Most consumers who buy new cars or even those who purchase recently used vehicles, chances are they’ll be using some sort of push-button, keyless-entry system.”

Edmunds reports 91%, or 331 out of 365, available vehicles for the 2019 model-year have keyless ignitions to start the vehicle as standard or optional equipment, up from 72% of 2014 cars and trucks.

Wards Intelligence, an auto industry forecast and analysis company, says about 68% of 2019 model-year cars and trucks sold from their start of production through March, the most recent figures, had keyless tech installed. That’s more than double from 31% of vehicles for the 2014 model year.

“It’s becoming ubiquitous,” said Karl Brauer, Cox Automotive executive publisher. “It’s basically, you’re not going to have a hard key that gets turned physically to start a car soon. It’ll just all be gone.”

Such systems are more convenient because people don’t have to remove keys from their pockets or bags. They’re also considered safer because there are no keys that could shift out of “run” while the vehicle is in motion, a situation found to have contributed to more than 100 deaths as part of General Motors’ ignition switch crisis in 2014.

Smartphone ‘keys’

Adding to the demise of the traditional car keys is the rise of automakers such as Tesla and Lincoln allowing drivers to use their smartphones as car keys to enter and drive their vehicles.

GM and other automakers have allowed owners to control certain features of a vehicle such as remote start and locking or unlocking from their smartphones for years. The Tesla Model 3 was the first to allow owners to use their smartphones as a key to drive the vehicle.

“People’s phones have basically become a fifth limb now,” Brauer said. “I like the idea of a phone-related system. Your phone has a whole lot more value to you and you’re going to be much more prone to track it and make sure you don’t forget it or lose it.”

Lincoln this fall is launching a similar feature called “Phone as a Key” that allows smartphones to be set up as car keys. The system, which was announced last year, uses Bluetooth or the vehicle’s onboard Wi-Fi to communicate with the smartphone.

“It is about making it more effortless and not having to remember where your keys are at,” Lincoln President Joy Falotico told CNBC. “But we want to do it in a way that takes it a step further with all this personalization that makes it easier to use.”

Lincoln debuted its “Phone as a Key” technology on the Aviator crossover, allowing clients to lock and unlock the vehicle, open its trunk and start and drive it – without a key fob.


Falotico described the feature as a “natural extension” to its customer profiles that allow the Ford Motor luxury brand to better tailor dozens of infotainment settings and interior cabin preferences such as climate, audio and seating to individual drivers.

Lincoln, according to Falotico, plans to evaluate its lineup and expand the technology “where it makes sense.” Phone as a Key is scheduled to debut this fall on the 2020 Lincoln Aviator and Corsair crossovers and 2020 Lincoln Navigator.

“For consumers, there’s a big convenience factor switching from traditional mechanical keys to some sort of wireless digital key,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst at Navigant Research.

Tech concerns

Like most new technologies, phone-based systems come with their own set of problems: What if the phone dies or gets lost? What if a driver needs to valet the vehicle? Or what if the system doesn’t function as designed?

For such situations, Tesla provides Model 3 owners with a backup keycard and Lincoln continues to provide owners with a standard key fob.

Keyless cars also mean automakers and smartphone providers will need to work much more closely to ensure their systems communicate effectively with one another, according to Consumer Reports.

“There’s also an issue with the smartphone itself: The lifespan of a car is far longer than that of any smartphone, so suppliers will have to work with phone manufacturers to ensure that their virtual-key technology remains compatible over the years,” wrote the consumer watchdog publication.

Consumer Reports last year reported testers occasionally had problems with Tesla’s app-based key system, including being “unable to open the Model 3’s door when they had closed the app — the modern equivalent of fumbling for keys at the bottom of a purse.”

Digital keys combined with updated technology to allow for faster access are expected to assist in overcoming such problems.

Shared mobility

Keyless cars also better enable emerging vehicle ownership models such as subscription services and shared mobility businesses, including autonomous vehicles.

GM’s Maven car-sharing service has been keyless through an app since it began in 2016, although the company hasn’t extended that to owners being able to drive their vehicles with a smartphone.

“It makes a lot of sense because whether or not the car is autonomous and it comes to your door, the idea that It is keyless … is going to have to happen,” Edmunds’ Caldwell said. “It’s not just about convenience, it’s about your own personal safety.”

Customers of GM’s maven car sharing program use an app enable remote functions such as starting, heating or cooling and driving of the vehicles.

Using a digital key with a profile connected could assist emergency units and others in gathering information about who was driving the vehicle in the case of emergency, according to Caldwell. It would allow them to prep for the person ahead of time for a myriad of things such as blood type and allergies.

The speed of keyless technology, according to Abuelsamid, also is expected to increase. Currently, it can take seconds or more for a vehicle to respond to remote commands from a smartphone. However, automakers such as Volkswagen are scheduled to release vehicles with “ultra-wideband” connections instead of Bluetooth that can communicate and respond in milliseconds.

“You’re going to start seeing more of this ultra-wideband technology be used in vehicles going forward,” he said. “It can send a lot more messages back and forth between the transmitter and receiver.”

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