BMW Wants To Eliminate Car Keys With Your Smartphone. Bad Idea. Here’s Why:

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It appears that Bavarian Motor Works thinks that the car key is a thing of the past. We’re here to give the car key its proper respect, and we hope that it lives on in the future.

According to Reuters, BMW’s Ian Robertson — chief of sales and marketing for the BMW group — thinks the car key is dead, and that it’s going to be replaced by your smartphone.

Manufacturers have incorporated certain features into smartphones already, of course, but they haven’t eliminated the key entirely.

Yet.

“Honestly, how many people really need it?” Robertson told Reuters at the Frankfurt auto show. It’s true that for several years now, the physical “key” has been replaced in a lot of cars by a proximity sensor, and some see the fob as the appendix, a vestigial organ left behind by evolution, whose sole existence is to cause problems.

“They never take it out of their pocket, so why do I need to carry it around?,” Robertson said. He indicated that BMW is looking at dismissing keys altogeter.

“We are looking at whether it is feasible, and whether we can do it. Whether we do it right now or at some point in the future, remains to be seen,” Robertson said.

Ugh.

We can think of a dozen reasons why a smartphone is a horrible replacement for the humble key. The primary reason: One of the most heavily viewed articles we’ve ever produced here at BestRide is a story John Goreham wrote on what to do if the battery in your key fob has gone dead, and you’re suddenly locked out of your car.

That indicates to us that a dead battery is already a problem. So much so that manufacturers — BMW in particular — have gone to great lengths to incorporate physical keys hidden in the key fobs for this very reason.

And that’s for a device that might go YEARS before the battery quits.

Your smartphone’s battery goes dead EVERY SINGLE DAY. Sometimes more than once. Right now, about three hours of your waking day is consumed with figuring out your proximity to an electrical outlet, and whether or not you remembered to bring your charger.

Picture this scenario: You’ve caught an afternoon flight back to Logan Airport in Boston from LAX. You’re scheduled to arrive at 11 pm. Instead, your flight is delayed and doesn’t get you in until after 1 am. Charging ports at the terminal were packed, allowing you no opportunity to charge your phone. By the time you land in Boston, you’re at 2%, wondering whether you’ve got enough juice to get inside the car and start it, given that you have to board a bus to the overflow lot in East Boston because the main garage was full.

Your smartphone is an awful solution to a key.

Even if the phone is fully charged, it’s too impermanent to act as the single device to get your car running every day. As an example, I thought I was being smart by replacing the lock on my front door with one of those Kevo smart locks.

I had come to the same conclusion as Ian Robertson and the marketing people at BMW: I have the phone with me all the time anyway. Why not get rid of the keys jangling in my pocket?

So I installed one. Within about four months, I’d become so frustrated with it that now, for the last three years, I just come in through the garage and my wife and kids use the physical key that always worked fine.

The first problem is getting the door lock to recognize the phone in the first place. That’s a horribly frustrating process that I’m sure BMW would have down to a science, and at least have a dealer network trained to take care of it for the people who are buying their $70,000 cars.

But that’s just the beginning. If you’re an iPhone user, your iPhone seems to update every other Tuesday, whether it needs to or not. Every time it does, it’s an opportunity for something to go funky with the apps. And that doesn’t take the app updates into consideration. Every one of those updates is an opportunity for you to have to pair your phone with your car again.

And you’re not going to have your phone anywhere near as long as you have your car. The average lease is three years. If you make it three years with your current phone, you might as well be this guy:

Even if you choose the same brand of phone, think about how frustrating it was when you lost your Candy Crush app the last time. Now imagine your car’s sitting dead in the parking lot and you’re late for a meeting.

Look, cars are better, safer, more fuel-efficient and more reliable than they have ever been. Yet, when J.D. Power does a dependability study, manufacturers that were once synonymous with dependability are getting punched in the windpipe because of the horrendous dependability of technology, most often related to smartphone integration.

From the 2017 model year report:

  • Continuing increases in technology-related problems have contributed to dependability worsening in the industry for a second consecutive year. The industry average of 156 problems per 100 is a 4 problems per 100 increase from 2016.
  • The Audio/Communication/Entertainment/Navigation (ACEN) category continues to be the most problematic area, accounting for 22% of all problems reported—up from 20% last year.
  • For a third consecutive year, the problems most reported by owners are Bluetooth pairing/connectivity and built-in voice recognition misinterpreting commands.

And inconvenience is only the beginning. Security is a coming nightmare that nobody seems to be addressing. At this year’s DEFCON hacking conference, there was an entire village devoted to taking advantage of the half-baked security measures incorporated in modern automotive technology.

RELATED: Keyless Entry is Still an Insecure Means of Protecting Your Car

“Modern cars are more computerized than ever. Infotainment and navigation systems, wi-fi, automatic software updates, and other innovations aim to make driving more ­convenient. But vehicle technologies haven’t kept pace with today’s more hostile security environment, leaving ­millions vulnerable to attack,” reads the CarHackingVillage.com website.

“As of this writing, vehicle safety guidelines don’t address malicious electronic threats. While vehicles are susceptible to the same malware as your desktop, automakers aren’t required to audit the security of a vehicle’s electronics. This situation is simply unacceptable,” reads The Car Hacker’s Handbook, by Craig Smith, a bible of car hacking that you — or someone a lot more nefarious than you — can read for free, at your leisure.

We’re definitely not the experts in this stuff, but we do know people who are. BestRide has an anonymous security consultant that we bounce things off from time to time. He helped us learn more about credit card skimmers when we wrote about that a while back. He was also the person who alerted us about DEFCON’s Car Hacking Village, because he sent us a message from there. We asked him about Ian Robertson’s comments:

My first thought is that this is a very stupid idea,” he said. “My friends and I can already intercept, start, and drive off with almost any key fob car in current production. Why manufacturers want to make things less secure is beyond me.

“This moronic trend of connecting everything to a web device (in this case a phone) just makes it so that we can break into more stuff. I can bark in with lots of detail here but the short version is this is a very, very stupid idea that only some idiot in marketing would think is good.”

If anything, we’d like to see the humble key make a comeback, like beards and vinyl records. Keys were compact, lightweight,  hack-proof, and — best of all —  they were gorgeous little pieces of art you could carry in your pocket.

So what say you, BestRide reader? Are you willing to forego the humble car key in favor of linking your automobile to the portable computer you have in your pocket? Are we on the money, or do we not have a clue?

 

 

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.