A digital car key, or remote access feature, allows you to access your vehicle remotely from your smartphone. These days, finding new cars that aren’t attached to the driver’s smartphone at the hip is difficult – but are digital car keys as convenient as they seem?

How Do Digital Keys Work?

Most digital car keys work off an app (typically installed on a smartphone or smartwatch) that the driver connects to their vehicle via Bluetooth.

Most digital car keys use a combination of ultra-wideband (UWB) and near field communication (NFC) technology to allow a smart device to “communicate” with a driver’s car. Essentially, the smart device activates a series of communication protocols that “tell” the car to lock or unlock when the driver is a certain distance away.

Some vehicles, such as Rivian SUVs, will automatically lock or unlock when a digital car key is within a certain distance of the door handles. Other digital keys require the owner to lock or unlock the car manually using the affiliated app. If keyless entry is important to you, check the make and model you want to buy and see what key and app options the automaker offers.

A woman carrying groceries gets into her car.
With a digital car key, you never have to worry about balancing groceries as you reach for your key. So, that’s a plus.

Why Would You Want a Digital Car Key?

Getting locked out of your car can be frustrating. Best-case, you wait in a nearby cafe or gas station for a locksmith. Worst-case, you find yourself in an unsafe area or dealing with bad weather as you abandon car for the day. That’s time and money you’d probably like to spend elsewhere. 

Of course, there are other reasons to want a digital key. Using a digital key means avoiding paying for replacement keys. Apps used to activate a smart device as a digital key also often come with a suit of features, such as the ability to locate and/or turn on the vehicle remotely. Some apps even allow drivers to control the interior temperature of their vehicle remotely, which can be handy if you want to warm it up on a cold morning or keep your dog safe in the summer heat.

Are Digital Keys Safe?

The public and cybersecurity experts alike have raised questions about the efficacy of remote key starters in recent years. While most digital car keys are fairly secure, 93% of vehicles recovered by Tracker in 2020 were stolen through a relay attack (in which a criminal intercepts an RFID signal from a key fob to access a car. 

Aforementioned UWB technology used by newer digital keys helps prevent relay attacks by setting more exact parameters for how digital keys interact with vehicles. 

The general consensus is that digital keys are secure, especially ones that utilize new technologies, such as UWB or rolling security codes that generate new access codes each time a driver opens their vehicle. Some automakers also use “code grabbers” or “RFID blockers” to prevent criminals from accessing vehicles via codes, even from keyless fobs. 

Are Digital Keys the Wave of the Future?

While digital keys may be something of a novelty at the moment, most large automakers have adopted them wholesale for newer makes and models. More tech-forward brands, such as Rivian and Tesla, offer digital key capabilities and related apps as a standard feature. 

Like over the air updates and other cutting-edge trends, automakers will continue to invest in and refine digital car keys in the coming years. If you want to keep up with latest developments in car tricks, tips, and tech, you’re in the right place – stay tuned for more news!

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