Eric Peters: No more keys for you!

By Eric Peters

BMW is the first major car company publicly talking about eliminating car keys entirely. Instead, an app would be installed on your smartphone to unlock – and start – the car.

Honestly, how many people really need it?”

That’s BMW’s Ian Robertson – referring to traditional physical keys, including electronic key fobs, which have become de facto standard equipment in higher-end cars and are becoming common features in mass-market cars as well. The fobs transmit an unlock signal – both to the car and to the ignition – allowing the driver to access the car and start the engine without actually putting a key into a lock.

“They never take it out of their pocket, so why do I need to carry it around?,” BMW’s Ian Robertson told a reporter from Reuters – referring to the electronic fobs. “Why not just put an app on people’s phones, since almost everyone has a smartphone and carries it with them wherever they go? We are looking at whether it is feasible, and whether we can do it. Whether we do it right now or at some point in the future, remains to be seen,” he said.

Image with BMW Ian

But is it a good idea?

That depends on your point of view.

On the one hand, an app on your phone rather than a fob in your purse or pocket will be one less thing to carry around and keep track of. And an app on your phone – which is just software, after all – will probably cost less to download and license than a physical key fob costs to replace.

Some of the fancier fobs cost more than $100 each.

It would also be easier – presumably – to install the app on multiple phones (spouses, kids, etc.) and the app could – one assumes – be downloaded pretty much any time, anywhere.

No trip to the locksmith – or the dealership.

On the other hand, if this becomes the new way to access (and start) cars, it will mean that having a smartphone becomes mandatory – if you want to drive a new car.

And it will mean bundling access to your car with your phone.

If you lose the phone, you may also lose your car.

Another possible worry is that an app instead of a separate key (or key fob) entails giving the automaker access to your phone – which means giving the dealer access to everything on your phone. There will be the usual talk of security measures put in place, firewalls and such – but the fact remains that it’s possible by dint of the fact that they have access. A key fob or a physical key is a dead end, as far as your personal information is concerned. Someone may be able to steal your vehicle if they get hold of your key/fob.

But they can’t steal your life.

Third party hacks are a possible worry as well. Conceivably, the car could be unlocked – and started – by anyone who gains access to your phone.

This could be done remotely, too.

Or – alternatively – you could be locked out and the ignition disabled by a hacker or by malware or just because your smartphone went dark and died.

Stepping back a bit, it’s debatable whether apps and fobs are a meaningful improvement over simple keys-in-locks that involve no electronics at all and which can’t be hacked. It’s true that it takes a moment to put a key in a door lock or ignition lock. But you’ll never have to worry about someone downloading your life or hijacking your car from afar. You can run an old-school physical key through a spin-and-rinse cycle without hurting it.

And if you do lose it, getting a new one cut costs less than $10.

But the main worry here is whether we’ll be allowed the option to choose the type of key we prefer – and prefer to pay for. Probably not.

Gadget mania – and the willingness of a critical mass of people to assume ever-more debt to acquire the “latest” thing – will likely lead to access-by-app becoming standard – and so unavoidable.

Progress? Or another example of real-life centrifugal bumble puppy?



Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at



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