Samsung's Digital key wants to help you give up your car keys forever

It's coming to Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis vehicles to start with.

Amid a flurry of announcements today of new buds, new phones, and new tracking tags, Samsung threw in something unusual: the promise of turning Samsung smartphones into digital keys that'll work with vehicles from big-name automakers and with smart locks. The company confirmed it's working with Audi, BMW, Ford, and Genesis to start with, but didn't commit to any specific models, or any smart home brands.

Samsung says Digital key will be available "after Aug, 2021" in the fine-print of its press release, and that it'll work with cars that support either NFC (near-field communications) or UWB (ultra wideband, of the sort also found in its SmartTag+ tracker). Vehicles will also need to be compatible with the nascent "Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) digital key standard."


Proximity-based — Samsung didn't go into much detail about Digital key beyond demonstrating someone walking up to a car and having it unlock just as they reach for the door handle. "With precise distance calculation, Samsung’s UWB-enabled digital key sends short pulses between the mobile device and the paired car, unlocking the door once you reach it," Samsung explains.

But it did speak to the ability to remotely share a virtual key with someone else (or multiple someones). It says users "will be able to seamlessly share their digital key across smartphones regardless of brand and platform for added convenience." That's thanks to the work of the CCC. Of course, those you share Digital keys with will need NFC- or UWB-capable devices.

Samsung says the UWB Digital key will be supported by the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, Galaxy Z Fold 2, Galaxy S21+, and Galaxy S21 Ultra. The NFC Digital key, meanwhile, will work with Galaxy S20 devices and better.

iPhone may well work, too — Today BMW made an announcement of its own about digital access, unveiling what it calls "Digital Key Plus," which will let iPhone users unlock the new BMW iX with just their phone. BMW's solution uses the UWB found on Apple's U1 chip in its recent smartphones. BMW is also working with the CCC, in an effort to provide "a global standard for the automotive industry."

Apple's virtual key allows BMW owners to do more than just share keys, they can control specific settings: like limiting the top speed of the car, or even the volume of the entertainment system. We're hoping that same level of granular control comes to Samsung's Digital key.


SmartThings loves Google — Samsung also used its Unpacked event to talk up a much closer relationship with Google. It showed off controlling Google smart home devices like a Nest Thermostat with a tap of a car's infotainment display and hinted at far deeper integration with Google's smart home ecosystem.

This isn't a surprise, because the company recently announced far closer integration of its SmartThings service with Google's equivalent. That's great news if, like me, you own SmartThings devices but want to control them via Google's Nest hardware using Google Assistant.

Does this mean Bixby is dead? Not yet, but how much longer Samsung will keep pretending it has any hope of succeeding is anyone's guess.