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The employee magazine
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Innovation

When Your Cell Phone
Becomes the Key

The Digital Key is an electronic car key in your smartphone. It should be available for the new Passat models in late 2018.

Just about everyone has been there: you’re running out of time and you’ve managed to misplace your car key somewhere. Your cell phone is usually within reach, though. And it may hold the solution for this situation. All it needs is the Digital Key.

The Digital Key is a digital car key on your smartphone. A sensor that is already in most cell phones serves as the key. This key identifies a scanning device in the handle of the car’s driver-side door. You simply hold your smartphone up to the handle – and the car is unlocked. You then place your cell phone in the storage compartment in the center console. This connects it to the car and deactivates the immobilizer system, allowing you to turn on the car as you normally would with the start button. 

The car’s owner decides who should have a Digital Key. Anyone who wants to drive the car will first have to register their cell phone with Car-Net for security purposes. Car-Net includes services and apps that link Volkswagen models to smartphones and the internet. Once registered with Car-Net, the Digital Key works without an internet connection. The key benefit here? Car owners now no longer have to hand their keys over to other drivers. “The key is sent through the smartphone, which has a real wow factor for users,” explains René Neitzel, who heads the 11-person development team behind the Digital Key in Wolfsburg. One advantage of this technology is that if friends want to store their luggage in the trunk or the kids want to get the groceries out of the car, they can have the electronic key sent right to their smartphones. And get started, just like that.

Car owners have 15 authorizations to give out, and can revoke them later if they wish. They also receive a smart card. This card becomes the key when the car goes to the shop. You also get a good old-fashioned key with a button remote, which will come to your rescue if you break your smartphone, the battery dies or you’ve misplaced the card.

No need to worry – the Digital Key is just as secure as an analog key. For example, if you lose your cell phone or it gets stolen, simply use the Car-Net app to reset all the settings in the car and disconnect the link between your car and your smartphone.

The Digital Key will likely find its way into Volkswagen models along with the Passat’s latest facelift. This will also make car sharing easier. Anyone who shares a car with someone else can have several keys available without having to physically distribute them. In addition, you’ll soon be able to use the trunk as a mailbox: “The mail carrier will be able to use the digital key to open the car and leave letters and packages in there,” explains 36-year-old mechatronics engineer Neitzel. However, there’s one thing the mail carrier won’t be able to do – start the car and drive away.

The “Digital Key” team from the Car-Net Functions and Innovations division (from right to left):

Project Manager René Neitzel, Jan-Eric Eichhorn, Hannes Haupt, Janina Pfeiffer, Sihem Amiri, Per Ulrich, Nedoma Pravoslav, Timo Chorrosch, Andreas Ortner, Thorsten Walenzyk and Benjamin Gnauk.