Continental tech turns smartphone into virtual key

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Automotive supplier Continental soon will let you forget your key fob and use your smartphone as a virtual key to unlock vehicle doors and to start a car engine.

Continental’s Smart Access systems are in development with an automaker in the U.S. and an automaker in Europe, Michael Crane, vice president of the body and security business unit for Continental in the Americas, said Tuesday during a media event here.

Continental isn’t identifying the automakers, but said Smart Access should be out in the market in one to two years, said Mauricio Hernandez-Distancia, director of body and security research and development for Continental North America.

Continental isn’t the only one offering such services.

General Motors Co.’s OnStar RemoteLink app, which debuted in 2010, provides remote lock and unlock, remote start and other services to owners of GM vehicles. The automaker’s Maven car-sharing business also uses an app for members to unlock doors and to start a vehicle during rentals that also can be booked through the app.

Continental’s Smart Access system is based on Bluetooth low-energy technology, with back-end functions sending secure authorization to the driver’s smartphone over the air to open a door and, afterentering the vehicle, to start the engine.

Last year, Continental formed a joint venture with Beligum-based D’Ieteren called OTA keys that provides unlocking and starting services to fleet companies, rental agencies and car-sharing businesses through an app. Customers also can use the app to select and reserve vehicles.

The joint venture has six customers in Europe and its first U.S. application will be announced this year, said Don Finney, senior project leader in Continental North America’s body and security division.

Continental is a leading supplier in the passive entry and starting space, annually producing nearly 6 million passive start and entry systems and about 9 million remote keyless entry systems.

The passive systems work through key fobs and antennas located at the trunk, center console and two front door handles. The system senses the key fob within about two meters of the car, allowing customers to open the doors. Continental showed a demo of a production system on a Lincoln MKZ.

Its Smart Access systems build on that.

“I always have my phone,” Dave Gutknecht, systems engineer within Continental’s body and security business unit said. “Why not use it as my key?”

More than two-thirds of U.S. adults own a smartphone today and the use of smartphones is expected to continue to increase, Continental says. It sees the space and its business growing as consumers enjoy the convenience and smartphone use grows.

Continental also will offer a Gateway Key system that can communicate with a smart watch or a piece of jewelry when drivers don’t carry their smartphones, Crane said. Functions include remotely unlocking doors and opening windows. Gateway Key also can also upload data to the mobile device, such as tire-pressure readings or gasoline amounts.

Further down the road, Continental is working on biometrics such as facial recognition that could one day unlock car doors.

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