What is a Digital Key for a Car?

Christian Wardlaw | Nov 16, 2020

Your smartphone goes everywhere with you, including places that perhaps it should not. Given that it’s always present, some car companies are now offering digital key technology through their smartphone apps. A digital key for a car uses your smartphone to operate a vehicle’s door locks and to start the engine, which means you don’t need to carry the key fob with you.

Lincoln Phone as a Key

Several automakers offer digital key technology. For example, BMW Digital Key is compatible with the Apple iPhone. Hyundai Digital Key works with Google Android devices. And Lincoln Phone as a Key plays nice with both Apple and Android smartphones.

Digital Key for cars remains uncommon. Lincoln offers the technology on its Aviator and Corsair SUVs, while BMW makes it available on nearly every vehicle it sells. You need not buy a luxury car to get digital key technology, though. Hyundai is expanding availability of its version of digital key, most recently to the redesigned 2021 Elantra, a compact sedan aimed at a youthful, tech-savvy audience.

How Does Digital Key Work?

You set up a digital key for a car using the smartphone app associated with your vehicle. Once that task is complete, you’ll be able to hold your smartphone immediately next to or on the car door handle, and it will unlock. Get in, place your smartphone in the wireless charger, and push the engine start button. You’re ready to drive.

For security, digital key technology uses Near Field Communication and a low-energy Bluetooth connection to communicate with the vehicle. If you don’t have a signal, or your phone’s battery dies, digital key can still work but there are limitations, depending on the automaker. Also, if you lose your phone, you’re out of luck, just as you would be if you lost the car’s key fob. However, both BMW and Hyundai offer a credit card-style backup that you can keep in your wallet or purse.

Lincoln Phone as a Key takes a different approach. You don’t need to take the phone out to open the door or start the vehicle. And if your phone has a dead battery, or you lost it, Lincoln allows owners to set a backup ignition passcode through the infotainment system. Aviator and Corsair owners can access the SUV using the code they set for the digital keypad on the outside of the SUV and then, once they’re inside, separately enter the backup ignition passcode to start the engine.

Is Digital Key a Good Idea?

As is always true, opinions are split on whether using a digital key is a good idea. Originally, the Tesla Model 3 came only with a digital key, but ultimately began offering good old-fashioned key fobs because, well, customers wanted them.

Wisely, BMW, Hyundai, and Lincoln don’t require use of a digital key. But, depending on the model and equipment, it’s there if you decide you prefer this technology. That means you get to decide if it’s a good idea or not.

BMW, Hyundai, and Lincoln are the sources of information in this article. It was accurate on November 16, 2020, but it may have changed since that date.

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