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Smartphones to double as car keys

Companies including Audi, Apple and Hyundai have unveiled plans to develop 'digital keys' that can give access to a car through a smartphone – and they could clamp down on car crime, too

Words By Darren Moss

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Digital key with Volvo

Drivers may soon be able to lock, unlock and even start the engine of their car using a smartphone rather than a traditional car key.

New so-called 'digital keys' would even allow car owners to send a key to another person remotely to allow them to drive their car.

Although the technology is still in the early stages of development, the Car Connectivity Consortium – a group of companies that incude Audi, BMW, Hyundai and Volkswagen, as well as Apple and Samsung – has unveiled specifications for how it would work.

Many car makers already offer keyless entry, triggered by pressing a button on a car key that then sends a signal to the car to unlock. The current system is flawed, however, because the key signal can be intercepted by thieves, who can then fool a car into thinking the key fob is present when it isn't – and thus gain entry to a car. The new digital keys are claimed to be a lot tougher to hack, primarily because they use the same secure short-range technology (known as near field communication) that enables contactless payments via smartphones.

Tesla already uses a Bluetooth signal from a smartphone to lock and unlock the Model 3 electric car. In case the battery in your phone has run flat, the car also comes with a thin keycard that can be stored in your wallet – a backup solution that's likely to be more widespread with the adoption of digital keys.

Volvo has also been investing in the technology, trialling digital keys as far back as 2016 through its Sunfleet car-sharing service.

Wearable technology including smart watches could also be used; Land Rover already offers an 'activity key' bracelet that can lock or unlock the latest Discovery.

Digital key technology could also prove useful in the future when gaining access to a self-driving pod that might be shared by many people, or for car-sharing schemes that would otherwise rely on complicated access codes or multiple physical keys.

The next step in digital key development will focus on making the technology scalable and therefore cheaper for car makers to implement. This next phase is scheduled for early next year, meaning it's conceivable that the tech will be seen on a production car before the end of the decade. Indeed, VW has said that it plans to use the technology 'soon'.

Since VW, Hyundai and BMW are all part of wider motor groups, it's likely that, in time, digital key tech would also be available across VW Group brands Seat, Skoda, Porsche and Bentley, Hyundai's sister brand Kia and BMW-owned Mini and Rolls-Royce.

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The most stolen cars in the UK revealed

The days when you could break into a car with a coat hanger might be long gone, but car crime is on the rise again; research by RAC Insurance shows that the number of vehicles stolen in the UK has risen by 30% in the past three years.

So, which models are most at risk? Here we count down the 10 most popular cars with UK thieves in 2017, according to data from car security firm Tracker. Is yours on the list?

10. Audi RS4

The RS4 is the fastest and flashiest version of Audi's A4 executive car, so it's perhaps not surprising that it features here as the most stolen Audi.

Unlike rivals, the latest RS4 is available only as an estate car, and it's the only estate in this list.

Read our full Audi RS4 review >

See how much you could save on a new Audi RS4 >

9. Volkswagen Golf

What the RS4 has in common with eight of the other nine cars is that it wears a prestige badge. The only one that doesn't is the Golf, which sits in ninth place.

The Golf remains one of the best family hatchbacks on sale, mixing composed handling with a very comfortable ride and class-leading refinement with lots of standard equipment.

Read our full Volkswagen Golf review >

See how much you could save on a new Volkswagen Golf >

Next: more of the UK's most stolen cars >