Soon, your phone will replace your car's key fob

By John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News
 The Hyundai digital key system allows a smartphone to replace the key fob.

The time is coming to say goodbye to car keys and fobs, as they are made redundant by new technology. And two brands, Lincoln and Hyundai, are leading the charge to modernize the business of opening and operating your car.    

At the recent New York auto show, both Lincoln and Hyundai revealed new models, respectively the Corsair crossover and the Sonata sedan. Both are remarkable for their striking designs and profusion of driver aids and safety systems. But they also stand out for being the first production cars to allow owners to use their smart phones to access and operate their vehicles and leave their keys and fobs at home.

Lincoln dubs its system ‘Phone as a key technology’ and uses an app that lets Corsair owners lock and unlock, open the liftgate, start and drive the vehicle all through a smartphone. The phone app echoes the key fob in other respects too; it can be linked to a personal driver profile that can automatically adjust up to 80 features to an owner’s preference, including seat, mirror and pedal positions.

The 2020 Lincoln Corsair is introduced by company president, Joy Falotico, at the New York auto show. The Corsair is the first vehicle in the premium class to offer a smartphone key app.

Lincoln claims it has thought through all the ways the smart phone key system could go wrong. For instance, if the owner’s phone battery dies, the Corsair’s standard number pad (mounted on the outside of the B pillar) can give access to the cabin. And the center touch screen can be used to start and drive the vehicle. If the owner’s phone is lost or stolen, then the app can be deleted.

Though the Corsair shares its platform with Ford’s new Escape, the Lincoln’s highly sculpted sheet metal and its interior design are quite different. And Lincoln says the ‘phone as a key’ system will not be shared with the Escape or other Ford products.

According to Joy Falotico, Lincoln president, the phone key system is part of the brand’s effort to create an “effortless experience” for its customers. “Lincoln’s transformation was launched four years ago with the Navigator, then the Aviator, Nautilus and now the Corsair,” said Falotico. “We are obsessed with the fine details and creating sanctuary-like interior spaces.”

The 2020 Corsair, which rounds out Lincoln’s SUV line and competes with the Acura RDX and Audi Q5, hits showrooms this fall.

In Hyundai’s case, the 2020 Sonata mid-size sedan also goes on sale this fall, bit it targets a quite different market segment than the Corsair. However it does share some interesting characteristics, notably a focus on sleek, innovative design and on advanced technologies, which go beyond the typical systems offered in its class. The Sonata’s suite of driver aids includes Hyundai’s ‘digital key’ system, which like the Lincoln Corsair, allows owners to use a smartphone to operate and manage the car.

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata offers an extensive suite of driver aids including a digital key system.

The Sonata does not have a Lincoln-style touch pad in case of phone problems, but it does come with a card embedded with near field communication (NFC) technology as a backup to the phone app. The NFC card is designed to be useful when using a valet service or visiting a dealership. Beyond that, the Sonata system permits owners to share the ‘digital key’ with friends and family using their own phones. The level of access to different vehicle functions can be tailored to each shared key user for a defined period. The vehicle owner can preset the duration of vehicle use or limit the use to only certain features when loaning the vehicle, and keys can be revoked remotely.

The prospect of smartphone access to a vehicle might sound risky to consumers, but Hyundai’s director of digital business planning, Manish Mehrotra, feels confident that the system is secure. “We have multiple layers of encryption and security protocols designed into the system,” said Mehrotra.

With Lincoln and Hyundai dipping their toes into the key-less era, we can expect other automakers to follow suit over the next few years. In time, consumers will be able to stop asking that age-old question: Where did I leave my car keys?

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at