2021.06.01 Hyundai Motor Group

The Future of Car Keys

Hyundai Motor Group
How did car keys change to what they are today? And what kind of car keys will come out in the future?

Car keys have evolved along with the development of automobiles. The car key serves two purposes - first as a security device to lock or unlock the car's doors, and secondly, as a starter to make the car move. However, the car key didn't exist when the car was invented. Early cars did not have a separate security device because there were no doors or ceilings, and a person started the engine by turning the flywheel or crank handle. So, when did the car key appear, and what kind of evolution is it going through?

The first key that turned on a car's ignition

The turnkey starter, which starts the engine by inserting a key as if opening a lock, was first introduced in 1949. The familiar car key with a black plastic handle also appeared around this time. Since the internal combustion engine first appeared in 1886, automobiles have been without a key for 63 years.

Of course, people didn't just create power and start the engine for 63 years, as explained above. The way of starting the engine using a battery and coil, just like a turnkey starter, was introduced in 1910. There was no need for a separate key as all you had to do was press a button to start the engine.

Immobilizer: Security system for car keys

With the mass adoption of automobiles, cars have become important personal assets; Protecting my car from crimes like theft has become important. The car key was an important tool for this - it was necessary to get into the car and to start it. Engraved into a unique pattern, the key acted like a password for a security system.

But these keys had problems; It was easy to duplicate. To overcome this problem, technicians gave each key a unique pattern by carving the inside, not the surface. Then, in 1994, the immobilizer technology appeared, offering a more fundamental solution. A key with immobilizer technology looks just like a regular key, but an encrypted chip called a 'transponder' is inserted into the handle of the key. The vehicle's electronic control unit (ECU) authenticated the information on this chip and allowed the engine to start. In other words, you could open the car door with an identical key, but driving the car was not possible. Immobilizer technology is still an important security device in automobiles.

Easy-to-use Remote control key

Car keys are constantly evolving not only in terms of security but also in terms of user convenience. The remote control key developed in the 1980s is a good example. The remote control key is still widely used, and it can remotely lock and unlock the doors using radiofrequency. It may also remotely honk or pre-start the engine to locate the vehicle, depending on the vehicle model.

However, most of the remote car keys use the turnkey starter method to start the engine. So, in order to drive a car, you have to insert the car key and turn. For reference, early remote car keys were either separated from the car key or had a button on the handle. Recently, flip keys, in which metal key blade folds into the remote controller, are mainly used.

The universal smart keys

A smart key is a universal car key with convenience and security. It looks similar to the remote control key but has more functions. The smart key communicates with the car using low-frequency, so you can lock and unlock the door from a longer distance than the remote control keys can. In addition, the car recognizes a smart key when it is nearby, unlocks the door, and activates convenient features such as Welcome Motion.

In addition, most smart keys have buttons rather than the turnkey starter. In the past, the immobilizer was operated through a chip in the key handle, but the immobilizer of the smart key operates through an antenna, so if there is a smart key in the car, the car can recognize it and start the car. For cars equipped with Remote Smart Parking Assist (RSPA), such as Hyundai Sonata and Kia K5, it is also possible to park your car outside the car using a smart key. This is a useful function for novice drivers who think parking or getting out of a narrow space is such a maneuver.

The Car key in your smartphone: digital key

The digital key was used in the 8th generation Sonata released in 2019, which is a 'keyless' car key. If you have a smartphone, you can unlock the door and start the car even if you don't have the car key - your smartphone can work as the smart key. The digital key is applied to Hyundai's Sonata, Avante (Elantra), and Tucson, as well as Kia's Carnival, K5, and K8.

You may share your car key in your smartphone with other people.

Digital key technology connects a smartphone and a car using Near Field Communication (NFC) or low-power Bluetooth communication. Since there is no physical key, it is possible to share my car keys with others. In addition, you can share car keys for a limited time or allow only certain features. For example, it is possible to send a delivery man your digital key that can only open the trunk so that he/she can put the package in it, or lend a car to your friend for only a limited time.

The digital key is expected to be more useful when the private car-sharing market becomes active in the future. This is because, without a face-to-face meeting between the lender and the borrower, not only can they exchange digital keys through a smartphone app, but also check encrypted profiles and parking locations.

Biometric system: A whole new level of security and convenience

What kind of car keys will appear after digital keys? Currently, the most promising is a biometric system. If digital keys make the physical keys disappear, biometric systems will make the entire car key disappear. Only you can unlock the door, and only you can start the car without upgrading the security of your car key.

In fact, biometric technology is being applied to automobiles. In 2018, Hyundai Motor Company introduced the world's first 'fingerprint authentication access/start system' that can open and close car doors and start the car through the Chinese Santa Fe (local name: Shengda). In addition, Genesis improved convenience by applying fingerprint recognition to the latest GV70's CarPay (in-vehicle simple payment system) and Ballet mode.

Fingerprint recognition module installed in Genesis GV70

In the future, automobiles are expected to be equipped with various biometric recognition systems such as iris, facial recognition, and voice, as well as fingerprint recognition. We will soon be able to open the car's lock by recognizing the driver's footstep sound and start the engine through iris recognition or voice recognition. With the development of technology, let's hope we could soon use our car more comfortably without worrying about security.

HMG Journal Operation Team


Pursuant to the Creative Commons License (CCL) 2.0, all users can copy, distribute, and transmit Information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom, or use it for exhibitions and performances. Please note, however, that all information is protected by copyright. Information users must use the information available on the Hyundai Motor Group Newsroom for strictly private/personal purposes only.

HMG Operation Policy