Volvo Ditches the Car Key to Make Way for the Future
Today’s car keys are surprisingly swanky when you consider that all they really need to do is open the doors and start the engine. Panic buttons and the ability to unlock the car from a distance were relatively early advances, as far as modern keys go.
Then came the push button start, which led to the elimination of the pointy metal bit and saving your thigh from the indignity of a sharp poke. Then there are the crazier upgrades: Porsche offers keys shaped like its cars, and painted in the same colors. And the key for BMW’s new 7 Series has a built in screen, because why the hell not?
Now Volvo is bringing about the final evolution of the key, by eliminating it entirely. After all, why waste time making a sweet pinky toe ring when you can chop off that unnecessary digit altogether, and be done with it?
Next year, the Swedish automaker will offer customers the choice of buying a car without the pagan ritual in which the dealer drops the keys into their waiting, cupped hands. Instead, they’ll use their phone to lock and unlock the car (after downloading Volvo’s app, of course). Volvo hasn’t revealed much about how this works, beyond “Bluetooth,” which is sure to raise eyebrows among those concerned about the risk of car hacking. (Those stuck in the past can still request physical keys.)
The real significance of this news isn’t that you won’t spend any more time frantically looking for the car key because you’re already late for work. It’s that by moving the key’s functions onto the phone, Volvo has further cleared the path for the future of cars.
The auto industry is inexorably moving toward a world in which people don’t own cars. Ford, among other experiments, is trying peer-to-peer car sharing for its employees, and will soon let up to six people jointly lease its cars. BMW ran a car sharing program in the Bay Area until November. Daimler’s Car2Go service operates in dozens of cities throughout the US and Europe. In November, Audi launched a premium car sharing service in San Francisco and Miami. In January, GM launched Maven, a riff on ZipCar that’s really about a driverless future.
Volvo will offer keyless entry via its own sharing service this spring. That service, “Sunfleet,” operates more than 1,000 Volvo cars at about 50 locations around Sweden. Right now, it works like ZipCar—you unlock the car using your user card, grab the key from the glove box, and go. That’s fine for a vehicle that isn’t owned by any one person, but it’s not so good if you want to share your own car, an increasingly popular practice. Who really wants to store their key in their car, where anyone with a brick can get to it?
Replace the key with an app that lets you grant remote access to your car to whomever, though, and the whole sharing economy gets a bunch more efficient. “Volvo Cars’ digital key means that sharing a car will become both simple and convenient,” the company says.
In the near future, this will be all about enabling car sharing, with the bonus of having one less thing to risk losing. Down the line, who knows what it could be useful for?
“We look forward to seeing how else this technology might be used in the future and we welcome any and all ideas,” says Martin Rosenqvist at Volvo’s special products division. “There are obviously many permutations when it comes to how this shared key technology can be used.”