Android 12 will turn your Pixel phone into a car key — assuming automakers bother

Nearly a year after Apple announced the iPhone would become your digital car key, Google is doing the same. Android 12 will officially let “select Pixel and Samsung Galaxy phones” natively double as a car key later this year, the company just announced at its Google I/O 2021 developer conference today.

It’s not like Google is exactly late to the party, though, because automakers are taking their sweet time rolling out the technology, too. In fact, Google’s announcement only names a single brand — BMW — which already announced it would work with Samsung earlier this year. And last we checked, BMW has only committed a single car to support the seemingly “best” version of the digital car key technology.

The end goal here is to replace your bulky key fob — which already lets you enter a car without removing it from your pocket — with your phone instead, using new ultra-wideband (UWB) radios to securely tell your car you’re actually standing right in front of it. Apple’s quietly slipped those radios into (almost) all of its new iPhones and its latest Apple Watch Series 6, and presumably today’s announcement means the next Google Pixel will have them as well. (They could also let you locate your car in a crowded parking lot, something Samsung plans to take advantage of.)

But… whether for backwards compatibility’s sake or because they’re pinching pennies, both Google’s and Apple’s technology also supports near-field communication (NFC), which requires you to physically pull your phone out of your pocket and tap it to a car like the 2021 BMW 5 Series. In some ways, that’s actually a step backward from the humble radio key fob.

What is UWB? 

Ultra-wideband just means high-frequency radio communications above 500MHz, but it now refers to two specific ideas:

UWB is a standard where devices broadcast short, low-power pulses to reveal and securely verify their location. It’s useful for item trackers, digital car keys, and to keep robots from bumping into each other.

5G UWB is a marketing term for short-range, high-speed cellular internet connections that operate at millimeter-wave frequencies.

Now, BMW likely isn’t the only automaker interested in the potential of UWB: Hyundai, at least, is a member of the FiRa Consortium that’s pushing for UWB specifically, and both Hyundai and Kia are members of the UWB Alliance as well.

(Apple, Google, Samsung, LG, BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Volkswagen are all on the board of the Car Connectivity Consortium as well, though that group’s promoting both NFC and UWB in its digital car key standard.)

No matter what automakers pick, it seems likely that participation in standards bodies and global Android support will let you use (and share) your digital car key across smartphone brands. Samsung announced as much earlier this year at its Galaxy S21 event. Google says it’ll share more on standards when it launches later this year.

In other Android / automotive news, Google says that cars from BMW and Ford will soon support Bluetooth Fast Pair to pair your Android phone with a single tap. Android Auto itself — the smartphone-based infotainment system that’s been around for six years and directly competes with Apple’s CarPlay — has now made it into 100 million cars, the company says.

Google also promises that going forward, the “vast majority of new vehicles” from GM, Ford, Honda, and other automakers will support Android Auto wirelessly, no need to pull your phone out of your pocket and plug it in. That’s a feature that’s been rolling out rather slowly since its introduction in 2016, partially because it wasn’t native to Android phones until last August, partially because automakers had been holding out on Google-powered infotainment systems, and perhaps because Android Auto has been methodically rolling out across the world instead of launching everywhere simultaneously.


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