What are virtual car keys, how do they work, and are they secure?

If you’re an owner of one of the more recent Teslas, such as the Model 3, you may have already been enjoying the virtual key lifestyle for some time. Now though, both Apple and Android hope to make the technology more mainstream by setting up partnerships with well known car manufacturers to show off how keyless entry can benefit customers. But what are these new virtual car keys and how do they work in practice? Read on to discover more.

What are virtual car keys?

Virtual car keys are a type of digital keys that allow you to unlock and open your car doors via a smartphone app. With this technology, gone are the days of searching for your keys at the bottom of your bag; all you need to do is have your smartphone to hand and you’re all set to drive.

In order for virtual car keys to work, cars will need the compatible technology to support this feature. Given this, it’s likely to be a little while before it’s commonplace to unlock your car with your phone.

How does the technology in virtual car keys work?

In most cases the technology that supports virtual car keys is near field communication or, as it’s more commonly known, NFC. To open the car using NFC you’ll need to hold your smartphone or Apple Watch near a NFC reader that detects the digital key – usually this will be on the car door handle. On your iPhone, you can access this virtual key by going into the digital wallet, however, you’ll need to have an iPhone that’s running iOS 13, iOS 14, or higher. 

Google’s digital car key will also use NFC and is built-in to its Android 12 smartphone operating system.

In both cases, phones with more modern Ultra Wideband chips, such as an iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max, will also be able to activate Express Mode. Here, a vehicle can be unlocked securely and reliably by detecting the phone’s proximity and position, even if it’s buried in your purse. In other words, it doesn’t need to find a reader in such close proximity, as with NFC, to unlock the car. 

The first car able to be unlocked with both Android and Apple virtual car keys will be the 2021 BMW 5 Series, with other manufacturers coming next year.

Are virtual car keys secure?

While virtual car keys prevent thieves stealing a set of physical keys, there have been security concerns about the use of virtual car keys. This is due to the fact that with virtual car keys you are able to quickly and easily create other virtual keys and send them via to others without having to get a new key cut. If a thief did steal your phone and was able to get into it by knowing your passcode, for example, they could easily create copies of your car key and send them to others – giving you your phone back before you even noticed. 

The ease with which you can do this, however, depends on how high your authentication settings are on your smartphone. If you have to use Face ID or other biometric technology to access your phone, (rather than just a passcode) a thief is unlikely to be able to use your keys.

On the other hand, if you are using Express Mode, you won’t have to verify your identity to access your virtual car key. This, therefore, is a less secure way of handling your virtual keys.

Finally, although virtual car keys can become inaccessible if you drop or shatter your smartphone while out, or if your smartphone is lost or stolen, the key function or the smartphone itself can be remotely deactivated so you can block others from using the keys just as you would with a lost or stolen bank card.

Would you be keen to try out virtual car keys? Let us know in the comments section, and, if you have any questions or other technology queries, tweet us at @techtroublesho1.

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