The day is dawning when vehicle owners never may have to look for their car keys again.
Continental AG has developed a technology that allows smartphones to unlock a car door and start the engine.
Continental is marketing its virtual key to car-rental agencies, corporate fleet owners and car-sharing services. If the concept proves practical, automakers could offer vehicle buyers virtual keys as a supplement -- perhaps even as an eventual replacement -- to traditional key fobs.
It was inevitable. Automakers have been perfecting car keys for decades, taking them from jangly metal things to sophisticated, chip-embedded brand statements.
The bulky things won't disappear overnight, says Mike Crane, Continental AG's North American vice president of body and security.
"For the near future -- maybe the next seven to 10 years -- the virtual key and the physical key fob will coexist," he predicted. "Both will be the property of the car owner."
But the German mega-supplier already has sold its technology to fleet customers in Europe, and this year, it will equip the fleet of an unnamed corporate customer in North America.
And Crane reveals that for the 2018 model year, an automaker he declined to identify will introduce Continental's technology as original equipment on a limited basis.
Here's how the virtual key works for rental cars:
Customers reserve vehicles online and receive an app to download to their smartphones. The rental agency transmits a virtual key via the cloud to the customer's smartphone.
On arriving at the rental agency, travelers use their phone to unlock the vehicle and start the engine. After the customer returns the car, the app cancels the virtual key.
Initially, the user's smartphone will use its Bluetooth connectivity to communicate with an adapter plugged into the vehicle's OBD-II port. The adapter, in turn, uses a radio frequency to pass along the "engine start" signal to the vehicle.
The original-equipment version coming for 2018 will not require an adapter.