Toyota Developing Key-Free Vehicle Unlocking System for Car-Sharing

A pilot project with car-sharing service Getaround in San Francisco will test the system, which uses smartphone apps instead of keys.

Toyota, smartphone app. Toyota Connected, Getaround, car-sharing, Toyota Smart Key Box, Prius, Lexus

Toyota is developing a smartphone app that can be used by car-sharing services to unlock and start cars that will be used by prospective renters, without their needing to get physical keys and fobs to use the vehicles.

The app will work with another Toyota development, a Smart Key Box module (pictured), which will be mounted inside the car-sharing vehicles to work with the smartphone apps and provide access to the vehicles only to the proper participant.

The Smart Key Box and the related apps are an initiative of Toyota's new Mobility Services Platform (MSPF), which the carmaker is developing to extend technology opportunities throughout its vehicle line-up. Toyota has been developing vehicle management systems and leasing programs to work with other businesses, including car-sharing operators.

The Smart Key Box requires no vehicle modifications and allows car-sharing members to lock and unlock doors or start the vehicle's engine using the app on their smartphone, according to Toyota. The smartphone app can receive codes to access the Smart Key Box, which authenticates the codes and gives access to the registered member of the car-sharing service via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) communications. The time and rental period when the user can access the vehicle's Smart Key Box is set and managed based on reservations set for the vehicle.

Car-sharing services today traditionally use physical shared keys that are secured in a locked box or through a dedicated communication device through a network to gain access to the vehicle.

To test the Smart Key Box and app approach, Toyota is scheduled to conduct a pilot program with U.S. car-sharing company Getaround in San Francisco starting in January 2017. The pilot project will test how the system works and show if it provides benefits and convenience for the car-sharing company and its members. Getaround gives car owners the chance to offer their vehicles for use by others in exchange for cash to "rent" out their vehicles.

As part of the project, Toyota Financial Services, the carmaker's vehicle leasing unit, is creating opportunities for leasing customers to offer their participating Toyota Prius or Lexus vehicles for rentals through Getaround and have the rental income from the transactions applied directly to the account of the Toyota leasing customer.

Through the direct lease payments to Toyota leasing customers, the program will test out the system and see if it can increase the number of vehicles for car-sharing, according to Toyota. "Based on the exploration results, Toyota will consider using the MSPF for other mobility services in Japan, like unmanned rent-a-car businesses," the company stated.

The MSPF is being developed and operated by Toyota Connected, which is the automaker's U.S.-based global division that focuses on connectivity.

"Our goal at Getaround has always been to empower people to car-share everywhere," Sam Zaid, the founder and CEO of the company, said in a statement. "Integrating our experience and purpose-built car-sharing technology with Toyota's activities across mobility services opens up new opportunities to Toyota customers and the rapidly growing car-sharing market."

Aaron Fowles, a spokesman for Toyota, told eWEEK that the car-sharing technology project is an opportunity for Toyota to "showcase some of our mobility products."

The idea for such technologies could also be used elsewhere in the future, including in a city that has a fleet of vehicles and wants to enable city employees to access them anywhere without physical keys.

"Maybe a valet company could figure out to do something with it" in their operations, as well, he said.

The Getaround pilot project in San Francisco will include up to about 500 Prius and Lexus vehicles. "It will give us a chance e to collect data and see how it is working," said Fowles.

In April, Toyota and Microsoft announced the creation and launch of the Toyota Connected effort, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Toyota Connected was created to focus on developing mobile software and services for connected vehicles.