I have a question for all the world’s carmakers: are we animals? Are you building and selling cars to a pack of goddamn animals? No? Really? If not, then why are you still building cars that have to be operated with a physical key of some kind, like a filthy ape would use? The era of the physical car key is over. It’s time to move on to something else.
Now, I know this idea has been floated before, most notably by Volvo, but these solutions generally replace the key with a smartphone app of some kind. While this is convenient and offers a great interface and platform for maximum control, it too is flawed: phone batteries die all the time, we lose our phones often, and software issues and security all conspire to make the smartphone a part of an overall keyless-car world, but it can’t be the whole thing.
My goal is that your own car should be able to be opened and driven by you even if you just crawled naked and empty handed from out of a nearby sewer manhole. It’s a familiar situation to many of us, of course.
The keyless car should also be able to be loaned out at the owner’s will, safely, and with safeguards so the owner is always in control of access to the car. The keyless car should retain the best parts of near-area remote control that a current modern key fob does today: locking, unlocking, flashing lights and making noise in a big parking lot, that sort of thing. I think all these things are possible, today, without physical keys.
I don’t have a huge personal vendetta against physical keys. If you’re a member of ZZ Top, then, sure, a physical key on that big ZZ keychain is the ideal thing to dangle before you let some scrawny kid get access to the Magic Hot Rod. But how many of us are members of ZZ Top? Not many, making this solution impractical.
A physical key will always be needed for emergencies where the car has lost all electrical power, too. But for 99 percent of normal day-to-day, non-ZZ Top living, not having to deal with car keys anymore is going to be a huge benefit.
Here are the main components I think you’d need to make the ideal keyless car:
• Fingerprint recognition, like Apple’s Touch ID or similar technologies
This has been on phones for a couple of years now, and while it’s not completely foolproof, it’s no worse than current car key locking systems, really. This would require a small finger scanning pad, like the ones seen on phones.
The advantage is that, under most normal circumstances, you tend to have your fingers with you wherever you go. Using them to unlock a car seems like a great use for fingers, right after nasal spelunking and scratching.
• Voice recognition
Again, this is technology from the smartphone world, and would require an external microphone—not an expensive component. A car could be trained to only respond to your voice, or perhaps a set of voices that you choose.
In addition to establishing identity, the car could given verbal commands like “Open the damn trunk!” or “Start up the A/C” or perhaps even you could yell “WHERE THE HELL DID I PARK YOU, CAR?” into a crowded parking lot and your car would flash its lights and beep like an excited puppy. With headlights.
• An external USB port
In the real world, sometimes cars get loaned out, or given to mechanics or valets or whatever. In these cases, a physical key is sometimes handy to have. My hypothetical future keyless car would have an external USB port that would be for off-the-shelf USB flash drives with owner-created “key files.”
These “key files” would give access to the car, with as many or few restrictions as the owner wants. For valets, perhaps it would be limited in speed and overall driving range.
For a trusted pal, maybe it would have full access, just like yours. Maybe for your idiot kid it would be limited on speed and range, and expire after, say, 6 hours or so.
Maybe parameters on the USB key could instruct the car to text its location to you every 10 minutes? Maybe you could have a ‘track key’ USB drive that optimized performance settings beyond that which is street or emissions legal, and disabled the center stack infotainment distractions?
I had this idea for vintage cars a while back, and now I think it’s cheap and do-able enough to just be integrated into anything. I’m sure there’s security issues to be worked out here, but that can be said for pretty much anything with remote entry systems today.
• Smartphone control, sure, why not?
While I don’t think the smartphone should be the only way to access your car by a long shot, it could be part of the system. It could offer all the controls of current key fobs, as well as providing an interface for data back from the car: interior temperature, fuel, location, maintenance information, whatever.
These little pocket-computers are too ubiquitous and useful to not leverage for something like this, and, as long as you can still get access to your car without it, I see no reason why not to have your phone be able to provide access and control to your car.
• Keypads? Sure. RFID reader? Have at it. Retinal scanner? Face recognition? Dental-pattern bite wedges? Sounds great.
There’s all manner of technologies being currently used, or being developed, or not yet imagined that are designed to identify a person. They’re crucial to all manner of interactions in daily life, and the technologies required to do these things is either getting cheaper every year, or already integrated into cars.
The big point is, the era of having to have a specific, small, lose-able physical thing to get access to your beloved car should be dead already. It’s not like modern key fobs are cheap, anyway—they can be hundreds of dollars to replace, which is unreasonably steep for something that your dog could easily eat.
There’s many ways to make cars that are as secure as cars today but don’t require any sort of physical key. This could make car rentals so much easier, car-sharing more viable, and just general car ownership and life appreciably easier.
I know I’m not alone as someone who has lost keys and locked keys in trunks and dropped car keys into inaccessible places – sewers and rivers and ravines and hungry, hungry sarlacc maws.
We need to be free of the tyranny of the little box in our pockets. I mean, sure, it’ll be trickier to let people know how sweet your ride is when you casually toss your keys onto a table or into that big fishbowl, but you can always just make your phone’s lock screen your car’s picture or whatever.
Anyway, car keys, it’s been fun. I’ll keep you for all my old vintage cars, but, when it comes to modern cars, I’m afraid it’s time to let you go.
It’s not you; it’s me. I’m sick of you.