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BMW driving research for the key of the future

BMW wants to turn your car key into a universal access device using near-field communications (NFC) technology.

In a paper published on its web site, BMW spelled out plans to allow people to customise their electronic car keys to allow the driver to pay for goods, to book and pay for travel on trains, to tune radios, and even to book and open hotel rooms.

"Our vision is that, in future, the key will not only mean access to the car but, inside and outside the car, will become as it were the 'key' to many functions. I would then be able to set out while checking for just one thing: have I got my BMW key on me?" said Thomas Kratz of BMW development access and authentication systems division.

Some keys already store vehicle data such as distance, fuel level, battery charge level and service data, but this is available only at specialist garages.

BMW researchers have added an NFC interface and a security controller to a current BMW car key to extend interactions with contactless payment, ticketing and access systems.

NFC is a RFID-based (radio frequency identification) wireless communications technology that works at ranges of under 10cm. It involves briefly holding two NFC-enabled devices close together to activate the relevant response. The maximum data transfer rate is currently 424kbps.

NFC transfer technology is already widely used in contactless payment systems by credit card companies, e-ticketing systems, and even passports and ID cards. Germany plans to introduce such an interface for identity cards in autumn 2010.

BMW said the modified car keys were "far more secure" than mobile phones because of the many communications channels on a mobile, such as GSM, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and that the threat of downloading malware presented serious risks.

The NFC interface in the research prototype already allows for a range of new functions. For example, the driver can buy a train ticket (KeyTicketing), call up the latest vehicle data for display on a mobile device (KeyInfo), make a contactless payment (KeyPayment), and even open hotel room doors (KeyAccess).

Suppose the car's navigation system warns the owner of parking congestion in town and the driver decides to use public transport. He could use KeyTicketing and the iDrive controller to buy the right ticket for the bus or train and store it on the key. Or he could use the display and iDrive to ask the BMW ConnectedDrive call centre to search for the most suitable connection.

The car would automatically transfer the ticket to the customer's key via the UHF (ultra high frequency) link, which is also used for remote vehicle locking and unlocking.

The driver could thus go straight from the car to the train without having to buy a ticket from a machine or print an e-ticket. "Unwelcome waiting periods, lack of small change or complicated pricing systems will no longer be a problem in future," said BMW's RFID researcher Jörg Preißinger.

Once on the bus or train, the driver would validate the ticket by holding their car key against the conductor's data terminal.

The key could also connect to useful information. A proposed CarFinder would be able to read the password-protected GPS position data and guide the driver back to the car if they forgot where they left it.

Displaying the charge level for an electric vehicle could show whether the car had the range for a detour.

BMW believes that integrating a credit card function into the car key could open up more options. These might range from new insurance and financial services to acquiring new vehicle software, all the way to drive-through payments that let customers pay fuel bills, parking fines or road tolls from inside the car. Even paying at drive-in restaurants would be possible.

BMW said it was already possible to book and open hotel rooms using the car key. "After a journey, you arrive at your hotel, bypass reception and go straight to your room as you were given your room key while in the car," Preißinger said.

Future applications include replacement of the house key or other access systems such as card readers. It could store access authorisation to the workplace and thus get rid of the company ID card, BMW said.


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