It Might be a Bad Time for App-based Car Keys

Since the turn of the decade, developers and owners have been mulling the idea of digital car keys. In reality, like the lurking tripods in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, they’re already here – but what they are and who is willing to use them (and if they should) are questions unlikely to have answers for a good few years yet. The advent of the truly “smart” car still seems some way off, after all, and may have already lost its wheels. 

Tesla Model 3

If you know how to use a digital wallet, you already know how to use a digital car key. However, to be thorough, let’s outline the requirements. First, you’ll need a compatible phone and vehicle – and, that’s basically it. 

The use of app-based keys is so specialized that you’ll probably have to go through set-up with your manufacturer. Then, using NFC (Near-Field Communication) signals for adjacent unlocking and UWB (Ultra-Wide Band) for more distant use, you can unlock your car. 

The technology’s similarity to phone payments can’t be overstated. In theory, you can swipe (or press a button on) your phone and be on your way. The Verge website notes that app keys have already seen some push-back, though. The once digital-only Tesla Model 3 now has physical keys available.

Alongside Tesla, the first company to adopt digital car keys was BMW. Apple and Google then joined them in 2020 and 2021, respectively.


There has always been a certain inevitability about app-based car keys, largely because the creep of technology into car systems has been happening for a while now, culminating in things like subscriptions and microtransactions for features. 

More than that, everything has gone digital, including plenty of “brick-and-mortar” industries like finance and entertainment. The former sector eventually came to accept the digital wallets mentioned earlier while experiences like casino gaming have embraced app-based access, too. 

For instance, classic video slot games like Starburst made their way online as some of the earliest examples of casinos on the web but live gaming, utilizing the latest video technology, can also now be streamed to an app.

It sounds like part of the future that Star Trek promised us so what’s the issue? Privacy is always a concern in a digital future but the biggest bugbear facing manufacturers today is something rather more mundane. 

Physical Controls

As of March 2024, Europe’s New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) wants car makers to bring back physical controls (or, at least, some of them) to receive a 5-star rating. Specifically, anything traditionally located on the steering column (indicators, wipers, hazard controls, etc.) must have a physical switch.

NCAP has not mentioned car keys yet but a drive toward a more tactile driving experience could put the brakes on what is still a young industry, one that hasn’t been received very well in the past. There’s a certain irony about navigating menus on the road to find safety tools.

For now, any manufacturer desperate to continue with a hands-off driving experience can do so, as NCAP assessment is voluntary but valued for marketing purposes. It remains to be seen how much digital kitsch the testing body will tolerate.