What is Near Field Communication?

Jack R. Nerad | Sep 15, 2020

We've all been there. We try to pair our smartphone to an in-car infotainment system via Bluetooth, and we just can't get it to connect. We believe we're following the protocols, but for unfathomable reasons, the pairing is elusive. Frustrated with the process, we often give up. 

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Imagine, then, how wonderful it would be if we could use a system that would make all the minor hassles of Bluetooth pairing go away. Picture pairing your phone with your car simply by holding the phone near the instrument panel. 

Such a system exists, and this scenario is just one application of a technology called near field communication. Abbreviated as NFC, it is a form of contactless communication between devices that is popular in Europe and Asia and is now gaining in popularity in the United States. 

What is Near Field Communication?

Near field communication has similarities to Bluetooth and Wi-fi but is different from those technologies in some important ways. 

A key feature of NFC is its interoperability between different wireless communication methods, enabling it to function across wireless platforms. The technology powering NFC enables a device to create a radio frequency current that communicates with another NFC-compatible device. 

Because no connection or even contact between the devices is necessary, it allows a user to wave the smartphone over an NFC compatible device to send information. There is no need to touch the devices together or go through multiple steps while setting up a wireless connection.

Those who drive a number of rental cars each year understand the frustration that accompanies attempts to "pair" phones with individual vehicles. The process has improved with time, but often it can be time-consuming. Sometimes rebooting your phone and starting again is your only recourse. Frequently, Wi-Fi has similar set-up issues as well. 

With NFC, pairing a phone to an in-car infotainment system is ridiculously easy. That's why some car brands refer to NFC-assisted pairing as "one-touch pairing." If your vehicle is NFC-enabled, you can quickly and easily pair your compatible phone to the infotainment system by simply holding your phone up to the instrument panel. 

NFC-enabled devices are always prepared to communicate with one another, and the communications between them are essentially instantaneous. Because of that, some automakers use NFC in conjunction with Bluetooth. The initial contact and pairing are accomplished via NFC, and then data, like music, for example, is transferred via Bluetooth. 

Cadillac and BMW are two brands that offer vehicles that support this process, but NFC is proliferating to a wide range of mainstream and luxury brands.

Other NFC Functions

While one-touch Bluetooth pairing is one of NFC's most worthwhile "superpowers," it is far from the only one. For example, you use NFC technology if you "quick pay" for a product or service by holding an NFC-equipped smartphone near an NFC reader.

Going forward, the presence of NFC-enabled smartphones will mean we will see more functions in future cars. For instance, there could be NFC touchpoints in the car's door handles and in the car's center console. With this configuration or something like it, placing the smartphone on top of the console could activate the memory function for the seats, audio, and climate control settings. This technology could also facilitate door unlocking and vehicle start, plus Bluetooth and Wi-Fi pairing. NFC could also power audio streaming, but it is likely that car manufacturers will continue to use Bluetooth with NFC to handle the infotainment pairing function. 

To deal with the security issues that are associated with wireless communication, near field communication has the provision to establish secure channels and use encryption when sending sensitive data. Since most of us would like to keep our cars secure, there is the likelihood that at least some car companies will begin to favor NFC for functions like door unlock and engine start because of its security advantages. 

Limitations of NFC

As impressive as near field communication sounds, it does have limitations. The key concern relates to its range. Typically, the NFC-enabled device has to be very close to another NFC device with a maximum range of only about four inches. That has benefits in terms of security since the signal isn't easily intercepted, but it is less convenient for functions like door unlocking, since drivers might want to unlock their doors before they are four inches from the vehicle. 

Still, it is expected that if your smartphone becomes the substitute for your ignition key and key fob, NFC will probably be the support technology. And imagine the convenience of being able to upload songs, podcasts, audio books, contact lists, and directions by a simple wave of your smartphone.

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