Volvo to start offering a smarter car key

Mobile app will create a virtual key to do anything a physical key can

Published: February 19, 2016, 7:30 AM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 12:56 PM

Volvo digital key access

The evolution of the car key has taken another step with the Volvo announcement that it plans to do away with car keys starting in 2017.

It used to be that you needed a key to open the trunk and another to unlock the doors to get into the car, and then turn one in the ignition to start the car. Manufacturers then realized they could make a two sided key that would work on all doors and be inserted into the ignition whichever way in order to be on your way.

Remote controls came along to allow us to unlock the doors or the trunk without having to put grocery bags down, and then came the transponder that expanded on that by allowing us to not have to worry about locking keys in the trunk because as long as you had it on you, you could open up the car simply by working the handle or pushing a button.

If we didn’t need keys to get into the car, why would we then need one to start the engine? And push button start was born. And then came the ability for the car to sense when the transponder was within a certain perimeter and automatically open doors or pop trunks by holding a foot under the bumper.

Volvo mobile app

So the next step has to be to get rid of the one physical item you still need in order to operate a motor vehicle, and Volvo is hoping to transfer that responsibility to the one item becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives — the Smartphone.

It makes sense because very rarely do people today go anywhere without their Smartphones, and when you only have a limited amount of pockets or so much room in a purse, why take up any more room with another hunk of plastic/silicon/metal?

Starting in 2017, Volvo will offer buyers a mobile app for their phones, which through Bluetooth will replace the need for a physical key. The app will act like a transponder and allow the user to unlock doors when he/she gets within a certain distance, open the trunk through a foot gesture, and start the car via a push-button.

But there’s more to it than that. It will also provide a snapshot of the vehicle, even when you’re miles away, so you can lock or unlock it, and check how much fuel is in the tank. It will also allow parents to transfer access to the car to another person’s phone for a specified amount of time, and a rental company can book a car for you online and transfer access to the car for the contract period, sending it along with the final contract by email, speeding up airport transfers by allowing the traveller to simply show up at the rental lot, find the car via GPS, get in and drive off.

And in a family of Volvos, the user can have several “keys” on their phones so they don’t have to ask to borrow the keys to the second car.

“New technology has to make our customers’ lives easier and save them time. Mobility needs are evolving and so are our customers’ expectation to access cars in an uncomplicated way,” says Henrik Green, Vice President Product Strategy & Vehicle Line Management at Volvo Cars. “Our innovative digital key technology has the potential to completely change how a Volvo can be accessed and shared. Instead of sitting idle in a parking lot the entire day, cars could be used more often and efficiently by whoever the owner wishes.”

Ideally, the app would come into use by other manufacturers so a family or a rental company, can use a variety of makes and models and allow quick and easy access to a variety of vehicles without the need to keep track of scores of keys.

“There are obviously many permutations when it comes to how this shared key technology can be used,” added Martin Rosenqvist, New Car Director, Special Products at Volvo Cars. “We look forward to seeing how else this technology might be used in the future and we welcome any and all ideas.”

Volvo will begin a pilot project with the app, using its car-sharing partner Sunfleet, operating out of Gothenburg airport in Sweden, in spring 2016. It will also take on commercial partners and test out the system of multiple keys in 2017. The technology will be displayed at Spain’s Mobile World Congress.

Although the company thinks the sheer practicality of the system will mean quick adoption by buyers, physical keys will continue to be offered to customers who prefer to use them.