As part of the 2021 Android 12 OS update, Google announced a slew of new Android features aimed at improving the automobile experience of Android users. Android Digital Car Key, a sleek new feature aimed at giving Android users hassle-free access to their cars, was one such feature.
But what is an Android Digital Car Key, and how does it work?
What Is Android Digital Car Key?
Android Digital Car Key is an embedded technology that ships with select Android devices running Android 12 (or higher), which allows you to turn your Android smartphone into a digital car key. It is Google’s answer to Apple’s Car Key (launched in 2020). Just like your regular car key, Android Digital Car Key lets you use your smartphone to unlock, lock and start your car. In other words, you can leave your car keys at home as long as your Android smartphone is with you.
You don’t have to undergo any tricky maneuvers to open or start your car. As long as your smartphone phone is with you, you can point your Android smartphone at your car’s door handle to unlock it. Or, your car’s door locks could open automatically as you walk close to it, depending on which technology your smartphone employs to implement the Android Digital Car Key feature.
Yes, there are some slight differences in implementation depending on the smartphone and, probably, the auto manufacturer involved. But to understand the differences, you’d need to understand the technology behind how Android Digital Car Key works.
How Android Digital Car Key Works
For Android Digital Car Key to work on a car, the automaker must first create the conditions to make it possible. At the most fundamental level, this involves the car’s access system being compatible with NFC (Near-Field Communication) and, more recently, UWB (Ultra-Wide Band) technology. Just because your smartphone runs Android 12 (or higher) and has the Android Car Key feature doesn’t mean you can use it on any modern car. The car has to support and implement the technical standards needed to make it possible.
On the smartphone side of things, your smartphone should also have NFC or UWB chips to implement the Android Digital Car Key feature. Both UWB and NFC are short-range communication protocols akin to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, although they work differently. NFC and UWB devices can send and receive data across a short distance at considerable speeds.
So, basically, for the whole setup to work, your Android smartphone, backed by the Android Digital Car Key feature, talks to your car, telling it: “Hey, it’s me, and here are my car-owner credentials.” Your car receives the communicated data, reviews it, and grants the car-owner access to the car. All these happen within seconds. It works similarly to NFC-based mobile payment systems like Samsung Pay or Google Pay. A little contact and information are shared and authenticated.
However, there’s a slight difference between how NFC and UWB technology work in regard to granting you access to your car. NFC has a shorter effective range. Although NFC is supposed to be contactless, its real-world range is so short that you’ll often have make contact with contact a compatible device to share data. So you’ll probably have to touch your car door’s handle (or digital reader) with your NFC-compatible smartphone or at least go a few centimeters close to get access.
UWB, on the other hand, has a longer range. Although it’s theoretically possible to exchange data via UWB technology within a range of 200 meters, the practical, real-world range is around 10 meters. Since we are talking about a digital car key, 10 meters is more than enough. This means you can have your phone in your pocket, walk up to your car while it automatically unlocks, and just open the door and enter. No need to put your phone against the car door’s handle.
Which Auto Manufacturers Support Android Digital Car Key?
All the features and working principles are cool and exciting, but which manufacturers and cars can you use Android Digital Car Key with?
Unfortunately, one of the biggest bottlenecks to the widespread use of the feature is a rather slow adoption rate by automobile manufacturers. When Apple announced its Apple Car Key feature, BMW was the key partner in the program’s pilot phase. More than a year later, it’s still only BMW that’s heavily invested in the technology. Although brands like KIA and Genesis have shown interest in adopting the technology, things are moving rather slowly.
The story isn’t any different for Google’s Android Digital Car Key. For now, the only auto manufacturer that’s very invested in the Android Digital Car Key technology is also BMW. Although Google has advanced plans to bring the feature to auto brands from manufacturers like General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, and Volkswagen, the implementation is still in its nascent stages.
Even with BMW, a company seemingly at the forefront of “accessing your car with your smartphone,” only select pricey BMW models are currently compatible with Android Digital Car Key.
On the smartphone side of things, only Google and Samsung devices are making commendable headway on adopting the feature. Even at that, the feature only works with Pixel 6 series devices or higher. Samsung also has a few devices that are compatible as well.
Now, UWB technology is “supposed” to be a core part of the Android Digital Car Key. However, its implementation and adoption, even by brands that support Android Digital Car Key, is pretty much a work in progress. Only a limited subset of Android devices support UWB technology. The Pixel 7 Pro, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy Z Fold 2, Galaxy S21+, Galaxy S21 Ultra, Galaxy S22+, Galaxy S22 Ultra, and Galaxy Z Fold 3 are some of the few privileged devices with UWB technology.
However, Google has been very clear about its push for UWB adoption within the Android Digital Car Key ecosystem. On the bright side, NFC technology is much more common among modern Android devices.
All in all, Android Digital Car Key is a cool technology, but access is mostly restricted to pricey, select smartphone and car models within select markets. Unfortunately, this means there’s a good chance your smartphone might not be opening any of the cheaper auto brands anytime soon.
Is Android Digital Car Key Safe?
Using your smartphone to open your car sounds like a potential security risk. In theory, it is. However, technical details reduce the possibility of malicious individuals hijacking a virtual instance of your car key to steal your car. Take NFC, for instance. It’s theoretically possible to snoop on NFC data. NFC, as a communication protocol, isn’t very secure. No password protection, no secure credential validation, nothing.
However, its short effective range works to its advantage. Also, a secure credential exchange and authentication layer can be built on the application layer of an NFC-compatible device to reduce the possibility of malicious access further. In simpler terms, NFC devices can be fitted with software that enforces secure authentication before granting access to your car.
And Yes, it’s a Google product, if that makes any difference to you. The company might have a not-so-popular data privacy plan, but they sure have the skills and infrastructure to limit potential safety flaws.
Android Digital Car Key: An Exciting Work-in-Progress
Historically, new, exciting technology has come at a great cost before the economy of scale and other factors kick in to reduce prices.
While Android Digital Car Key is still a technology on paper for many people, as more automobile and smartphone brands adopt the feature, there’s a good chance that the opportunity to try it out will come to most Android users sooner rather than later.