A small Toronto technology start-up could unlock some major changes in tomorrow’s cars, trucks and crossovers.
Keyfree Technologies plans to introduce what it is billing as the “world’s first digital car key solution” during a preview at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show. Unlike traditional, metal car keys, or more modern wireless keyfobs, the company’s system would use a digital smartphone app to control a vehicle’s doors and ignition.
“This is the first technology that allows car owners to leave their keys at home,” explained Shane Wright, CEO of Keyfree. “The key is in your phone, just like your camera, your maps and your calendar. Users can share digital keys with their family and never have to hunt for misplaced keys again. And with military-grade encryption, Keyfree is far more secure than current key fob technology.”
That, of course, remains to be seen. But there is little doubt that hackers have become a critical concern to the auto industry. Though there is no evidence that criminals have yet been able to steal a vehicle by cracking current keyfob codes, that possibility has now been demonstrated by several groups in a lab environment.
On the positive side, even more secure digital technology could add another weapon in the arsenal for auto theft protection experts. New FBI data reveals that car thefts have plunged 58% since hitting an all-time peak in 1991. And the National Insurance Crime Bureau credits improved technology as one of the key factors in that decline.
“Eventually, the key will go away,” Dave Sullivan, a senior analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc., told TheDetroitBureau.com. He expects that only a handful of models – mostly base-level trucks – will continue to use conventional keyed ignition systems.
(GM ignition switch death toll climbs again. Click Here for the latest.)
Metal keys have already declined in use. According to the automotive research site Edmunds.com, some form of keyless push-button switch was available, either as a standard feature or an option, on 72% of the cars and trucks sold in the U.S. during the 2014 model-year.
Keyless ignition systems aren’t a panacea. When it was struggling to deal with its unintended acceleration problems, five years ago, Toyota discovered that some motorists were unable to stop runaway vehicles equipped with push-button starters. It eventually advised owners to, “firmly and steadily push the button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine. Do NOT tap the engine start/stop button.”
Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been studying the technology and could issue national standards next year. That said, the agency is not expected to limit the use of keyless technology – which has also become one of the hot trends in home automation this year.
The Keyfree digital key would work much like some of the home smartkeys, such as the Okidokeys system. It would rely on a smatphone app that, in this case, would automatically unlock a vehicle when the user approaches. A conventional push-button starter would then be enabled.
A Keyfree user, the company says, could readily issue digital “keys” to anyone else with a smartphone. But the owner could also set restrictions, or even revoke a user’s privileges instantly.
The system would allow a user to access information, such as the vehicle’s location, as well as diagnostic data. And it could be used to start the key remotely and adjust the climate control during inclement weather.
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The technology also could make it easier to rent a car or participate in a car-sharing program.
“Digital keys are set to be the backbone of these solutions,” Keyfree’s Wright suggested.
Whether the Toronto firm will become a major player in the automotive industry is far from certain, but most experts believe we are moving quickly down the path to a keyless vehicle, whether using smartphones, wireless keyfobs or some other technology.
(Is the car key really an endangered species? Click Here for more.)