Volvo Experimenting With Mobile App That Replaces Car Keys

By 2017, Volvo plans to have a system that will let owners operate their Volvos using an app on their mobile phones, instead of a car key.

Volvo mobile app entry

Volvo owners in the future could soon be able to operate their Volvo cars and SUVs using an app on their smartphones instead of with a traditional electronic fob and metal key.

That's the idea behind a pilot program the company is running in Sweden which uses a custom smartphone app that ditches a physical key in favor of a Bluetooth-enabled digital key on their phones, according to a Feb. 19 announcement by Volvo.

"We're constantly looking for new ways to expand ease of use and that level of luxury for our customers," Jim Nichols, a spokesman for Volvo, told eWEEK. "By enabling a smartphone as one of the options to open and operate the car it opens another opportunity to enhance the experience."

Volvo hopes to become one of the world's first carmakers to offer cars without keys starting in 2017, though it will remain only a pilot project at that time, said Nichols. The Volvo app would replace a physical key and allow customers to lock or unlock the doors or trunk of the vehicle and start the engine, all from a smartphone. They also will be able to keep more than one digital key in the app for use with multiple Volvos, if they own more than one vehicle.

Volvo owners also can share their digital keys using the app with someone else if they want to loan them their vehicle, according to Volvo.

The app and technology are being piloted this spring by the Sunfleet car sharing service at Gothenburg airport in Sweden where it is allowing car renters to schedule, rent, pay for and get the digital key to their shared car rental right from the app, said Nichols. That means customers don't have to wait in lines to pick up their rental vehicles. The vehicle can be located using GPS on the phone.

"There is no physical key swap" for the customer, he said. "That's part of the technology."

A limited number of commercially available cars will be equipped with the pilot digital key technology in 2017, according to the company. Volvo so far has no formal plans for when the digital key could become a standard or optional feature in its cars for sale to the public and has not announced how many vehicles or users will be included in the continuing pilot tests, said Nichols. To start, the pilot project will be conducted only in Sweden. The company wants to do tests in the United States, as well, but no firm plans have yet been announced.

The app works with a smartphone and allows the user to walk up to a Volvo, be identified through Bluetooth and then unlock the vehicle. Once in the vehicle, the user will start the car using a button on the dashboard without requiring a physical key. The smartphone and its accompanying app can remain in the user's pocket or purse to operate the vehicle.

Traditional metal and electronic fob keys will still be provided with Volvos that will test the new system, said Nichols, to give drivers a choice about using their vehicles.

"It's not all or nothing," he said, "at least for the foreseeable future."

The new keyless car technology will be shown for the first time at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona at the Ericsson booth.

In January, Volvo unveiled new voice command capabilities for its Volvo on Call app that will give Volvo owners the ability to give voice commands to their cars through a smartband and an updated Volvo app, allowing them to operate a range of functions on their vehicles before they even sit in the driver's seat.

The new voice command capabilities work through a Microsoft Band 2 smartband that is worn by the vehicle owner who can communicate voice commands through the wearable, which is linked to a Microsoft Windows smartphone, according to an earlier eWEEK story. Using the Band 2 and the Volvo on Call app, vehicle owners can perform in-car tasks such as setting the navigation system, turning on the interior heater, locking the doors, flashing the lights, sounding the horn in a crowded parking lot and more.

The new voice command services for the Volvo on Call app will be available starting this spring for all Volvos in 2016. The Volvo on Call system has been used in the company's cars since about 2001, starting when it originally was used as an automatic emergency notification system in the event of a serious vehicle crash. The services have been expanded over the years to also include the ability to send instructions to a Volvo vehicle through the smartphone app to lock the doors, start the heater and more. The latest update brings voice controls to the system using the smartband and connected smartphone.