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Forget Your Keys? Your Next Car May Be Unlocked With Your Smartphone

Image: car keys

A bunch of car keys. Pat Wellenbach / AP file

You might notice something missing if you buy the new 2017 Volvo S90. The car key.

Starting with the launch of the new sedan later this year, the Swedish automaker plans to abandon the car key, except as a special option.

And Volvo isn't alone. Traditional metal car keys have almost vanished entirely. Ford, for example, offers standard keys on only two new truck models. And they could vanish entirely in the next few years. But Volvo and others may also abandon the smart, wireless keyfobs that have come to take the place of standard keys, as well.

"Mobility needs are evolving, and so are our customers' expectation to access cars in an uncomplicated way," said Henrik Green, vice president at Volvo.

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Volvo has been testing alternative entry options for several years. It ran a pilot program in Europe that allowed a delivery service to use a special one-time code to load packages into a motorist's trunk. And it will test out the new keyless vehicles through the car-sharing service it operates at the airport in it home town of Gothenburg.

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Volvo isn't the only one interested in getting rid of the key. Some Ford cars allow a driver to get in by entering a code through a touchpad on one of the window pillars. And it has an optional hands-free access system on some SUVs that lets you wiggle a foot under the bumper to have the power hatchback open. But you still need a key — or at least a smart keyfob — to actually start the car.

That soon could be a thing of the past, as well. A growing number of vehicles now rely on touch start buttons, rather than conventional ignition switches. It would be a relatively modest trick to link the button to a smartphone, rather than a keyfob.

Indeed, General Motors' new Chevrolet Bolt battery-electric vehicle will feature a smart app that will let an owner remotely monitor the car — to start or stop charging, for example, or to get the climate control system running while the Bolt is still connected to a charger, so as not to draw down its internal batteries.

GM has good reason to go keyless. A poor ignition switch design made it possible to inadvertently shut off the engine in a number of models. The maker delayed by a decade the recall of 2.4 million vehicles equipped with the defective switches, ultimately resulting in more than 120 deaths. It has paid out more than $1 billion in fines and settlements to victims and their families.

Digital keys have a number of potential advantages. They can be operated remotely, and you don't have to physically have the key, just a smartphone with the right app.

Automakers aren't the only ones considering the smartphone option. A small Toronto start-up, Keyfree Technologies, introduced a system that owners can retrofit into their vehicles. The system is smart enough to automatically open a vehicle's doors when someone with the Keyfree smartphone app and approved digital signature walks by.

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A Keyfree user, the company says, could readily issue digital "keys" to anyone else with a smartphone. But the owner could also set restrictions, or even revoke a user's privileges instantly.

That could prove useful if one of the owners ever needed to give the car to a valet. Volvo plans to offer owners an optional, more conventional smart keyfob that a parking attendant could use.

On the other hand, keyless cars will permit future valet services that eliminate the attendant entirely. NHTSA last month gave BMW approval to test its autonomous valet parking system. The technology will allow a driver to exit the vehicle, press a button on the keyfob — or smart app — and have the car park itself. Later, the system could be used to call the vehicle to come pick up its passengers.

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"Eventually, the key will go away," forecast Dave Sullivan, a senior analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc.

The metal key almost had vanished, but it may take time for automakers to abandon the smart keyfob, as well. BMW actually came up with the smartest keyfob yet with the launch of the new 2016 7-Series sedan line. It has a multi-function LCD display that operates much like a smartphone's touchscreen.

Ford, meanwhile, offers a special "MyKey" on some models allowing a parent to provide a teen driver with a special key fob to restrict their maximum speed, and even limit how loud the radio can be played. Dodge, meanwhile, provides two different colored smart keys for its Charger and Challenger Hellcat models. The red key unleashes the muscle cars' full 707-horsepower, the black limiting a driver to "only" 500-hp.

Keyless ignition systems aren't a panacea. There is growing concern hackers might crack the code and start stealing cars equipped with keyless entry and ignition systems. While that possibility has been demonstrated in the lab, there have been no reports of that happening on the street — yet. Nonetheless, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls cybersecurity one of the biggest issues facing the auto industry in the years ahead.