Two Decades of Remote Access Key Expertise

Nov 15, 2013

  • Design and a variety of functions are the trends for remote access keys
  • Near Field Communication (NFC) allows data to be transmitted from the vehicle or smartphone/tablet to the remote access key
  • Continental has been setting standards in the development of vehicle keys for over 20 years

Regensburg, November 15, 2013. 20 years ago, Siemens Automotive, a predecessor of the automotive business of the international automotive supplier Continental, commenced volume production of the first remote access key for passenger cars. Today, Continental remains one of the leading developers in the market for technologies for remote-controlled vehicle access systems. "We have set quite a number of standards in the last two decades of vehicle key development," summarizes Andreas Wolf, head of the Continental Interior division's Body & Security business unit, the past developments. "For instance, Continental has accelerated the personalization of vehicle keys. Today, drivers can store personal preferences such as the position of the seat or steering wheel or their favorite radio station, which are set automatically during the unlocking process." At an organizational level, Continental is present with development and application capacities in all important world markets thanks to its global positioning. With around 20 million electronic car keys produced each year, the company has a great deal of experience in this segment.

Continental is celebrating 20 years of Remote Access Key Expertise Image download

Setting trends in design and function

Continental is setting the latest trends thanks to the company's technology leadership. One of the most striking trends will be the further optical and haptic "refinement" of remote access keys. In addition to plastic, examples include surfaces made of stainless steel, brushed aluminum, glass, leather, and ceramics. The miniaturization of the components is a further aim. A current showpiece is a key card with a thickness of only 3.4 mm, which Continental developed in 2012 for the luxury class sedan of the Korean automotive manufacturer Kia. In this remote-control card that can easily fit in the wallet, the electronics – including the passive access control system (Passive Start and Entry, PASE) – are cast in plastic for a tight fit and high resistance to breakage. In other markets, however, conspicuous keys of a certain size and with an eye-catching appearance are more in demand.

1993 was the year of the first remote key in series production – without infrared. Image download

The range of functions is set to increase in the opinion of the key experts in Regensburg. For example, a function to open the car automatically will also be available as standard in the near future: By closely monitoring the position of the key in the vehicle's environment, the system can activate personalized vehicle functions from a distance of up to six meters– such as the seat setting, exterior lights, or opening the trunk lid when the driver approaches the rear of the vehicle.

The first vehicle key that could show the locking status of the car was introduced in 2007 Image download

Vehicle Keys will soon support also Near Field Communication (NFC). This interface, which Continental has already developed for volume production, allows data to be transmitted from the vehicle or smartphone/tablet to the remote access key. This opens the door to lots of new applications, such as easily transmitting a route calculated on a PC to the car's navigation device, reading out data saved in the remote access key to a smartphone/tablet via NFC, or using the smartphone as an additional "vehicle key." For this, the digital key is stored in the cell phone. This is an affordable option for rental car or car-pooling fleets as it is no longer necessary to hand over the keys in person. Innovations for biometric start systems, in which cameras and sensors record certain features of a person and compare them with the data of the authorized drivers, stretch even further into the future.

In 2012 Continental introduced the really thin car key – with Passive Start and Entry functionality. The key can stay in the wallet if the driver wants to open the car. Image download

From keyless unlocking to remote status query

These high-tech fitments and design forms of the remote access key are a big step forward compared with its origins in 1993. Back then, the remote function was still only an accessory in a conventional key with fixed bit. The remote process was intended primarily to facilitate access to the vehicle and avoid annoying circumstances such as dirt from the key bit and iced-up door locks. Continental soon began to expand the remote technology to gradually include new functions. A function was added for opening individual doors in a targeted manner and for activating interior and exterior lights, and immobilizers were integrated. A large number of personalization options were also included. At the same time, the remote access key became a designer object as the range of functions increased.

One of the most striking trends is the further optical and haptic "refinement" of remote access keys. Image download

A further Continental milestone was the introduction of PASE, the passive access control system, in 1999. In this technology, the key communicates independently with the vehicle as soon as it is in the vicinity of the vehicle. If the key is authorized, the vehicle can be unlocked and the engine can be started via a start button. Andreas Wolf: "Following the introduction of the first passive access control system in 1999, Continental has been one of the leading suppliers in this area."

Smartphones with NFC technology will be able to act as vehicle keys in the future. Image download

A further step forward was Continental's first bidirectional key in 2006. Drivers could now see specific vehicle statuses, for example if the vehicle is really locked, using indicator lamps on the remote access key. Today, the successor systems allow drivers to query the status of relevant vehicle and climate functions at a distance of up to 300 m. Continental intends to increase this range for status queries to 1,000 m in the near future.

Andreas Wolf finds a broad systems approach to be particularly important: "Keys consist not only of electronics, but also mechanics, software, and cryptology. In the vehicle, the system is completed by the receiver, multiple antennae for detecting the key in the passenger compartment, and the electronic control unit. We offer all of this from a single source and ensure smooth integration into the on-board electrical system, including handling different radio frequencies and safeguarding the system against sources of interference."