Coming Soon: Smart Key Fobs And Corresponding Smartphone Apps

May 3, 2010
Volvo Personal Car Communicator (PCC)

Volvo Personal Car Communicator (PCC)

Key fobs—those little remotes that typically just lock and unlock our car doors—are about to become a lot smarter.

Although there have been glimpses of innovation—incorporating remote start, for instance—they haven't changed much in more than a decade. For several years, Volvo has offered hints of their potential, in an interface called the Personal Car Communicator (PCC) on several of its models, including the S80, V70, XC70, and XC60. The system allows two-way communication between the keyfob and car, so it can tell you whether or not you remembered to lock the doors (and even do so from a much longer distance than normal). But its most noteworthy feature is that it actually has a heartbeat sensor and can inform you if someone's hiding in the vehicle.

But the Volvo system hasn't proven to be the "gotta-have-it" item the Swedish automaker was hoping, as it begs the question, if someone broke into the car and set off the alarm (therefore setting off the red lights on the keyfob), why would he or she stay in the vehicle? It's a very limited scenario.

Nevertheless, it's the first of a new generation of keyfobs that help the vehicle owner monitor their vehicle or fine-tune vehicle functions when they're a short distance away—for instance when the vehicle is outside in the parking lot and the owner is at his or her desk.

Up until now, one of the issues was that standard RF keyfobs didn't have enough of a range. The upcoming 2011 Nissan Leaf electric vehicle will come with a smartphone app that helps users check their state of charge remotely, for instance, or look for charging stations, and gets around that with a transceiver that uses mobile network data services.

But mobile data connections on a large scale could get pricey, and new key fob technology from Delphi, employing medium-range Bluetooth transceivers, also called Near Field Communications (NFC), allows owners to share data with their vehicles at a distance of 650 feet or more without an access point. The company has developed a Bluetooth Gateway Key Fob that communicates with the vehicle then makes that information available via close-range Bluetooth with a smartphone.

Among the possibilities for such a key fob setup include trip computer data such as fuel economy or mileage; safety features such as tire pressures; maintenance tracking or alerts; and personalized settings for climate control, seat and steering-wheel position. Through GPS, the vehicle location might also be displayed in fine detail, on a map, to help find it in a very large parking lot.

It's a lot smarter—and a lot less obnoxious—than hoping you're in range and hitting that panic button.


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