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updated 2/27/2013 4:50:41 PM ET 2013-02-27T21:50:41

Ever wanted to unlock a rental car wirelessly? It's a wondrous thing to ponder in this, the 20th anniversary year of the remote-control key. At this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Continental Corp., the inventor of the remote key for cars, is demonstrating a system that essentially downloads a car key onto a smartphone.

“That's really interesting for car sharing, car rental,” says Sebastian Fillenberg, a spokesman for Continental, a German manufacturer.

The app on display at Mobile World Congress uses NFC (near-field communication) wireless technology to unlock a car. In addition, a module inside the car provides wireless charging via the Qi standard (also used in some Nokia phones, for example). The idea for this proof-of-concept app is to show how a rental or car-sharing agency could manage its fleet online. You could go online to see if a car is available, reserve the car and then download the data necessary to open and start that car.

The data gets downloaded to a secure section on the phone's SIM card. To maintain security, that data stored on the SIM card is tied to the phone hardware. That means you can't remove the SIM and then try to unlock the car, Fillenberg says. Then, using NFC, the phone works as a car key, in place of a physical key or a card you have to swipe to get into the car.  The phone would also be able to start the car.

In order for this to work, there would need to be a reader inside the car, and another outside the car or just inside the windshield. Fillenberg says that adding in Qi wireless charging to the equation felt natural, given that you'd obviously have the phone with you. [See also: Six Ways Wireless Power Can Change the World ]

The implications for this kind of technology are huge, given the rapid growth of car-sharing services like Zipcar in both the U.S. and Europe.

“It's about working with the [car-sharing] fleets, but also working with vehicle manufacturers,”  Fillenberg says. “The vehicle manufacturers themselves are thinking about the business model of offering vehicles for car sharing.”

Currently, a prototype Continental app is in field tests with the city of Toulouse, in France. That app can even log any damage to the car.  But it doesn't include the wireless power component just yet, and making the entire system a real product is likely several years away.

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