Samsung partners with Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis to turn your phone into a car key

    The dream of using your phone to unlock your car door (instead of carrying around a bulging key fob) may be one step closer today: Samsung has announced partnerships with Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis to do just that, saying the feature may be available as soon as August 2021. And excitingly, those digital car keys should work with Apple iPhones and across other Android brands, too.

    That’s because Samsung is part of multiple standards bodies that are working on the tech, including the the FiRa Consortium and the Car Connectivity Consortium, of which Apple is also a leading member. “You’ll even be able to share your digital key across smartphones, regardless of brand or platform,” Samsung’s Kevin Chung announced during the company’s Galaxy S21 event today.

    Samsung says it’s trying to add additional car companies, too: “We’re actively working to expand our automobile partnerships with the goal of offering this feature across a wide variety of car makes and models,” the company added in a statement early this evening.

    Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear which automakers will support the coolest, securest version of this tech: UWB. It uses small, standardized beacon-like pulses of low-power energy, preferably from multiple parts of your car at once, to figure out exactly where you are in relation to your car’s handle from a sizable distance away.

    Samsung says with the new digital keys, “you’ll be able to unlock your car door when you reach it, no sooner, no later,” but I’m pretty sure it’s only referring to UWB there. The fallback is NFC, where you’d likely need to pull your phone out and tap it to your car, like you do with tap-to-pay NFC transactions today.

    The AR viewfinder for UWB-equipped phones and cars.
    Image: Samsung

    Samsung also showed off how the tech can let you find your car in a crowded parking lot, with an augmented reality viewfinder it says it’s bringing to Samsung phones — but the fine print says it only works with UWB-equipped cars and UWB-enabled phones.

    Every iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 comes with UWB now, but Samsung says only the Galaxy Z Fold 2, the new S21 Plus and S21 Ultra (so, not the S21?), and the “Galaxy Note 20+” (presumably referring to the Note 20 Ultra, which has UWB) will support the AR viewfinder.

    Apple is also waiting for carmakers to adopt UWB and had to roll out its own version of digital car keys with NFC to start, and only on the 2021 BMW 5 Series. But BMW announced earlier today that it’ll support UWB, branded as “Digital Key Plus,” with the electric BMW iX.

    Samsung’s also introducing a UWB-based tracking tag for finding your lost gadgets later this year, though — like the car keys — it’s starting off with a less impressive Bluetooth version instead that won’t let you locate them as precisely.

    Update, 7:32PM ET: Added that Samsung is trying to rope in additional automakers, too.

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