More Apps for ‘Digital’ Car Keys

Article By : Junko Yoshida

NXP's “automotive digital key solution” enables smartphones, key fobs and other devices to securely communicate, store, authenticate and share digital keys with vehicles.

Carmakers, smartphone designers and chip suppliers have been developing “digital car keys” for some time. Thanks to the efforts by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), a cross-industry organization, “The industries have come together on one standard as to how to open a car,” explained Rainer Lutz, director of digital key and NFC segments at NXP Semiconductors.

But once a car key goes digital, why limit its applications to just unlocking and locking? Digital key applications re-imagined by automakers include starting the engine via smartphone, authenticating users, sharing the digital key remotely with other authorized users, or revoking these sharing privileges.

NXP Semiconductors has just rolled out a new “automotive digital key solution” that enables smartphones, key fobs and other mobile devices to securely communicate with vehicles. More important, these digital keys will serve to authenticate users, configure users’ driving rights and attach their entitlements. NXP’s Lutz noted that the new digital car key architecture is based on the Car Connectivity Consortium’s Standardization Release 2.

NXP’s secure element family, dubbed NCJ38A, is an automotive-qualified secure microcontroller, with advanced cryptographic accelerators and physical and electrical attack resistance. The secure element based on NXP processor with Arm SecurCore SC300 technology stores security applications and their confidential data.

NXP Secure Element Application Block Diagram (Source: NXP)

Who needs it?

A key factor about the digital car key is that while it doesn’t make traditional keys obsolete, it can make other mobile devices such as smartphones or key fobs serve as car keys. Even if you’ve lost or left behind your car key, you could still enter and start the car with your smartphone.

You could also share the key with others. Now that the key is digital, there is no need for multiple physical car keys for family members or friends. The digital car key can ensure that the car is used only by those authorized to drive it. With that, “You can even start a car Airbnb business,” said Lutz.

Perhaps more important is that the car owner or car OEM services can remotely terminate or suspend the digital key, when the car is stolen or used for unanticipated purposes, like getaway car after a bank heist.

Of course, no scenario makes sense without assurance of the digital car key’s ability to securely communicate with vehicles and authenticate users.

NXP is confident it can deliver that promise. It will do so by leveraging NXP’s automotive qualified Secure Element and NFC chipsets, while making sure its solution complies with the CCC’s Standardization Release 2 and is interoperable with other devices.

Secure container

Lutz noted that besides offering secure chips, NXP is also providing to its customers a “container” for secure applets. The secure container, for example, can hold multiple keys, whether for a private car, company car or rental. It can even contain “a one-time key for delivery services so that they will have access to your car’s trunk,” noted Lutz.

He also added that NXP has been supplying these secure elements and NFC chipsets to phones and key fobs for a long time. This gives NXP a potential leg up on competitors because “we have already tested all these chips — both on cars and smartphones — so that they are implemented correctly and interoperable.”

Complying with the security architecture defined by CCC’s Digital Key Release 2 (unveiled last fall) adds credibility to NXP’s automotive digital key solution. Lutz noted that 107 companies are CCC members — including major car OEMs such as Volkswagen, Toyota, BMW, GM and Honda. The agreed-upon standard makes the solution “car and smart device agnostic,” and interoperable, according to the CCC.

The CCC’s Digital Key Release 2 stands out for two reasons. One is that it leverages NFC, which establishes a secure connection between mobile devices and vehicles. Because NFC works separately from a phone’s operating system, it will operate and open the door even when the smartphone’s battery is running low.

BLE and UWB to offer an extra layer of security

Carmakers are now working to add Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) so that they can add an extra layer of security for digital keys. This will be specified in the CCC Release 3.

According to the CCC, “The Digital Key Release 3.0 specification will enhance Digital Key Release 2.0 by adding passive, location-aware keyless access.”

The Smart Car Access Ecosystem (Source: NXP)

Rather than having to unholster their mobile devices to access a car, consumers will be able to leave them in bag or pocket when accessing and/or starting their vehicle. “Passive access is not only vastly more convenient and a better overall user experience, it also allows vehicles to offer new location-aware features,” the CCC explained.

These new features will employ a combination of BLE and UWB. UWB is not switched on all the time. The energy efficient BLE establishes the initial connection between phone and car, said Lutz. Once UWB comes into a two-meter range around the car, the car assumes, “the driver is next to a car or inside a car, and the car enables enable passive keyless access,” Lutz noted. Naturally it is NXP’s plan to add BLE and UWB ICs to the coming digital key solutions following the CCC’s release 3 spec. NXP, however, declined to discuss timing for CCC’s release 3 specifications.

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