In this latest installment of our ‘Ask the Experts’ Q&A series, we’re joined again by Erik Peters from the Dialog connectivity team, to get his thoughts on the current – and future – role and impact that Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology will have for cars, drivers and the automotive market in general.
Can you talk a little about the way Bluetooth is currently affecting the automotive space?
BLE is having an enormous impact on the automotive market. Hands-free calling, tire pressure monitoring systems, Bluetooth car speakers – these are all innovations that drivers and passengers can interact with in their day-to-day lives. And that’s all because of BLE.
Another trend we’re seeing is the rise of car rental services like Zipcar and Getaround. These aren’t strictly Bluetooth related but they do show how driving and owning – or not owning, in this case – a car is becoming an increasingly digital experience reliant on smart devices and connectivity. It has become just slightly less of a completely physical experience, and one that blends together physical and digital. All of which helps fuel what will be the next wave of innovation in the industry: BLE-enabled digital keys.
What is a digital key and what role does BLE play there?
Digital keys would replace traditional key fobs. So instead of using a physical key to unlock the doors or start the car, you’d use a digital key installed on your phone or smart watch instead. It goes beyond just ignition and locks – the digital key would also give you control over things like temperature, music, volume. For instance, in the winter, instead of sitting in a freezing car in the morning that takes several minutes to warm up, you can remotely set the heat to turn on well before you get in. That way it’s at the ideal temperature right as you get in, not when you’re halfway through your commute.
How do the digital keys work?
Unlike a physical key or a fob, there’s nothing to insert and turn, and there’s no button to push. The digital key works entirely based on location and physical proximity to the car. That’s all done via Bluetooth. BLE enables the digital key to determine how close or far to your vehicle you are, using a series of nodes or receivers on the car to get a fix on its position and yours.
That plays out in a couple different ways. For one thing, you never have to worry about whether or not you forgot to lock the car; it’ll automatically lock or unlock depending on how close you are to the vehicle, and signal to you when you’re close by, so that you’re not wandering around the lot wondering where you’d parked. You also never have to worry about locking your keys inside the car or forgetting your keys in the first place. It’s all right on your whichever device you’re already carrying with you.
How does security factor into digital keys?
There definitely are security concerns to take into consideration. For one thing, BLE-enabled IoT devices that carry the digital key need to incorporate various layers of cybersecurity – whether it’s end-to-end encryption, two-factor authentication or simple password management – to make sure that not just anyone can access the device and, by association, the key. On top of that, the digital key itself must come with a level of built-in authentication. If the car locks or unlocks within the presence of the key, then we must ensure that that capability is only available to authorized users, and not just anyone walking by a parked car.
This is true for car owners but it’s also true for customers of car rental services. I mentioned Zipcar earlier. In that case, the user doesn’t own the digital key because they don’t own the car. Rather, Zipcar would need to authenticate the digital key to work for a driver for a specific car, in a specific place, for a specific period of time – and then transfer the authentication for that key to another user when it’s time for their reservation. This allows for digital keys to be shared between customers while also ensuring that only the right people, at the right time, are driving the cars they reserved. Services like Zipcar can also go beyond just setting up when and where digital keys should expire; they can also customize the digital key to provide the customer with access to some, but not all, features of the vehicle, depending on their discretion.
Security is already a major factor when we think about cars – if you lose your keys, or they’re stolen, that’s already a security risk. So, it’s not that digital keys are inherently less secure than traditional ones, or that digital keys and Bluetooth are introducing anything unsafe or dangerous here. It’s just a different way to think about how we secure our cars and ourselves.
If you could sum it up in just couple words, what, in your view, is the big selling point for digital keys and automotive BLE in general?
In two words, I’d say it all comes down to this one thing: user experience. Bluetooth and BLE devices like digital keys should be focused on making people’s lives easier and making experiences that might have been mundane or tedious into something more intuitive, emphasizing convenience and safety. When the key becomes digital, and a part of the mobile device you’re already carrying, then essentially, you become the key. You don’t have to worry about losing your keys. You don’t have to worry about sitting in a freezing car. You don’t have to worry about finding your car in a crowded lot.
And as the technology continues to evolve, Bluetooth and digital keys have the potential to make everything from programming music and temperature settings to adjusting seat and mirror positioning a faster, more seamless and personalized process.
Thanks to Erik for taking the time to chat about BLE and the future of this technology in the automotive world. Stay tuned for future posts in our Ask the Experts series. In the meantime, check out how Dialog’s suite of Bluetooth low energy devices – like our SmartBond DA1469x series – is opening up new opportunities for engineers.