UWB “Key experience”: How the iPhone becomes a car key

Keyless systems for cars are convenient, but they’re not without controversy. Existing security solutions, which make a classic car key obsolete, can be tricked. Many high-priced automobile owners who have been theft victims can tell you a thing or two about this. With the so-called Ultrawideband (UWB) technology, more and more car manufacturers now want to put an end to these criminal activities. Read this article to find out how it works, for example, with a BMW 220i and the iPhone, and also why UWB has the potential to revolutionize the smart home market.

Hand on heart: While searching for the car key in trouser and jacket pockets, every driver has probably left their take-out coffee mug or other items on the roof of the car. Bad luck for those who have already temporarily forgotten about the object placed on the roof when getting into the car. Thousands of car rear windows have suffered coffee drops, laptops are smashed on the roads and lost briefcases bear witness to such misfortune.

Keyless systems ensure that the car unlocks automatically as soon as the owner approaches without having to take the key or press a button on the fob. The engine can also be started at the touch of a button, without an ignition lock in place. With previous systems, however, convenience comes at the expense of security, as they can be fooled with a little technical knowledge or a manageable financial outlay.

If the user approaches the car with the iPhone in their pocket, the door unlocks automatically. If you pay close attention, you can hear the door unlock just before you pull the handle. / © Alexander Hauk

With conventional keyless technology, in fact, the system measures the reception level of the key radio signal without checking whether the measured reception level makes sense. Sometimes all it takes is for the signal level to be high enough, and then the car doors will unlock. Criminals exploit this weak point using special devices. They extend and amplify the radio signal of the key, which the rightful owner attaches, for example, to the key ring behind his own front door or leaves on the restaurant table. According to a recent survey of 500 cars by the German Automobile Club (ADAC), only about 5% of vehicles are well protected against theft.

Several car manufacturers rely on UWB

A so-called relay attack as described above does not work with ultra-wideband technology. In fact, the system not only measures the signal level, but thanks to UWB, it also measures the propagation time of the radio signal extremely accurately. If the range is manipulated, where the transmission time of the radio signal between the transmitter and the receiver is too long, the car remains locked. For safety reasons, more and more car manufacturers are using this technology, including Audi, BMW, Ford, Genesis, Mercedes, Skoda and Volkswagen.

In addition to UWB technology for the key fob, BMW offers Digital Key Plus as an option for several models, including the BMW 220i Active Tourer. This allows the owner to store the electronic key in the digital wallet on a smartphone. For this to work, the “My BMW” app must first be downloaded and installed on the owner’s smartphone. For those who opt for the key fob, the door magically unlocks shortly before reaching the vehicle and also automatically locks shortly after the driver leaves the car. The engine can also be started by pressing the start button in the center console, because as soon as the owner of the key enters, the car recognizes the driver.

We tested the UWB car key with this BMW 220i and an iPhone. / © Alexander Hauk.

The app also offers a lot of information and functions. For example, current fuel level and approximate range can be viewed on the go. The app can also be used to lock and unlock the vehicle by simply pressing a button on the corresponding symbol. Anyone who forgot the location of the car can press the “Vehicle Finder” button and the exact position will be displayed on a map.

Even if the smartphone’s battery runs out, the system takes care of this problem: all the driver has to do is hold their smartphone directly against the door handle. The doors are unlocked via the NFC chip integrated into the smartphone itself. In addition, every BMW customer continues to receive a conventional key fob with buttons in case the smartphone is lost or stolen. What else is practical? The digital key can also be shared with others, such as family members, through the app.

Digitaler und physikalischer Autoschlüssel

By iPhone or the classic key fob? With more and more brands and vehicles jumping on the bandwagon, users have a choice. / © Alexander Hauk

This is how UWB technology works at BMW and other automakers

Several chips are integrated into the vehicle which receives the encrypted radio signals from the smartphone. From the time it takes to send and receive these signals, the exact spatial position of the rightful owner of the car is determined. The car can only be started if the driver is seated inside.

In addition to BMW, several other car manufacturers rely on UWB technology. At Audi, the technology is currently available for the classic key fobs of the A3 and Q4 e-tron models. All future models based on the new PPE (Premium Platform Electric) and PPC (Premium Platform Combustion) vehicle platforms will be available with the new technology. “The first models on the new platforms will be introduced next year,” said Audi spokesman Michael Crusius.

Blick ins Auto bei BMW über die Smartphone-App

The BMW app also brings other benefits. For example, it lets you peek inside the car. / © Screenshot: Alexander Hauk, editing: NextPit, photo: DenPhotos / Shutterstock.com.

At Skoda, UWB technology is currently found in the key fobs of the Octavia and Enyaq models. “It is expected that other model ranges will be equipped with this technology,” said Skoda spokesman Karel Müller. According to Volvo Cars’ Michael Schweitzer, the Swedish automaker currently has no vehicles with UWB technology in its lineup. However, this will be taken into account when planning future models, a Volvo spokesperson informed us.

Only possible with modern smartphones

The technical prerequisite for this extraordinary key experience is not only the right car, but also a compatible smartphone. Apple, for example, has equipped all iPhone models from the iPhone 11 with a UWB chip. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Samsung Galaxy S21+ and Ultra, Galaxy S22 series, and Z Fold 2 and Z Fold 3 also support the same wireless technology. In Xiaomi’s lineup, only the Mi Mix models are currently compatible, and Google’s are the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro.

However, UWB technology is not limited to smartphones alone: ​​a corresponding chip is also installed in the Apple Watch 6 and Apple Watch 7, as well as in the Apple AirTag, Apple HomePod mini and Galaxy SmartTag from Samsung.


The iPhone 13 series supports the full UWB standard. / © NextPit

Since UWB enables precise positioning and the technology can transmit large data packets over an extremely wide frequency spectrum, the technology is also attractive for many application areas for both indoor and outdoor use. the outside. Parallel use of WLAN or Bluetooth is not a problem at all because the frequency ranges do not overlap and therefore you will not encounter any possibility of interference.

A bright future for UWB

With the Internet of Things, UWB has the potential to change the world and make everyday life a little safer and more convenient. Not only with cars, but also apartment and house doors or garage doors could be fitted with it. The previously mentioned trackers from Apple and Samsung can help locate misplaced items, such as a set of keys.

Inland navigation is also possible with UWB. Since the technology can be used to locate objects with precision down to centimeters, it can also be used to control smart home devices in the future. Just point the smartphone at a compatible device, and it’ll get to work. The device will be recognized and can be controlled via an app on the screen. However, it is still cheaper to use WLAN and Bluetooth, so this convenience will probably have to wait a little longer.

About Marion Browning

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