SAN FRANCISCO -- Near-field communication, the wireless technology that allows users of Apple Inc.'s iPhone 6 to make payments by tapping the smartphone on a reader at a checkout counter, is coming to the car.
Automakers and Tier 1 suppliers long have theorized that drivers could pair a smartphone by tapping it against the dashboard, rather than navigating menus on two separate screens. Yet the necessary hardware has been slow to materialize.
Now, in another sign of the convergence of cars and smartphones, companies are rushing to supply the technology to the auto industry.
NXP Semiconductors, a Netherlands-based chipmaker with a growing connected-car business, said last week that it will offer a lineup of automotive-grade tags and chips, with the first cars going into production around 2016. That includes a first-of-its-kind controller chip that can support dozens of functions, rather than just one.
"The existing way of pairing a phone over Bluetooth is getting better and better, but it's still a bit cumbersome," Drue Freeman, a senior vice president at NXP, said in an interview. With the new chips, he added, "you just tap it, and there you have it."
Within a few years, near-field communication, or NFC, is expected to become a standard feature in smartphones. In a February report, the consultancy IHS projected that 416 million handsets with the technology would be shipped globally in 2014 and that number would rise to 1.2 billion by 2018.
NXP is already one of the auto industry's largest suppliers of integrated circuits and wireless chips for remote-entry key fobs.
The chips needed to pair smartphones with cars using NFC would cost a couple of dollars per vehicle, though the cost could be significantly higher if an automaker wants to link a wide range of features -- seats, climate control and so on -- to a cellphone.
Freeman said he could not disclose the first customers for NXP's new controller chip or how they planned to use it.
There are many possibilities, including allowing customers to use a cellphone to start the car if they lose their keys. Daimler's Car2Go car-sharing service and BMW's similar DriveNow program equip their cars with NFC chips; users open the cars by tapping a membership card on the door.
Some operating systems in the dashboards of today's cars already support the wireless protocol. In a 2012 demonstration, QNX, a subsidiary of BlackBerry Ltd., showed how NFC could be used to pair a smartphone with a Porsche Carrera.
Andrew Poliak, director of business development at QNX, said the company's operating system supports NFC whether the driver uses a BlackBerry smartphone, an iPhone or a handset running on Google Inc.'s Android operating system.
Car companies have invested heavily in connected-car features, Poliak said in an interview, and by making it possible to sync a phone with a single touch, they "could bump up the percentage of users that actually connect their phones with their vehicles."