NFC Makes Smartphones the Key to Hyundai’s New Cars

The company's 2020 Sonata will be the first vehicle to come with NFC readers and BLE beacons built into its locking system and inner console, so that drivers can use a smartphone as a key to enter and start the car, as well as manage its settings.
Published: March 6, 2019

This year, new Hyundai vehicle owners will be able to use Near Field Communication (NFC) and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) functionality in their smartphones to access and start their cars. The new digital car key solution, being rolled out first in the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, will consist of 13.56 MHz NFC RFID readers and antennas compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, as well as BLE beacons in the car and an app to operate the system.

Hyundai Motor Co.’s automotive group in South Korea has released what it calls Digital Key technology, which is intended to eliminate the need for key fobs or remotes. Instead, the vehicles will enable drivers to use their phone to open the car doors, launch the ignition and personalize settings inside the vehicle, according to a driver’s personal preferences. To accomplish this goal, users of the Hyundai app can set up what is known as a Cloud Profile, which links a user’s phone to a vehicle, while also enabling him or her to customize preferences, such as how the driver’s seat is positioned.

With Hyundai’s Digital Key technology, drivers can use a smartphone to open a car door.

An NFC antenna is built into the door handle, as well as into a charging pod in the car’s center console. According to Miles Johnson, Hyundai’s senior manager for quality, service and technology public relations, the system is intended to provide convenience, easy sharing of keys and access to driver profiles on a cloud-based server, all via a smartphone app. To make the solution work, he explains, “The user needs to be the verified owner of the vehicle, [be] enrolled in the Digital Key Service, have downloaded the Hyundai Digital Key App and [have] paired the device to the vehicle.”

First, a car owner downloads the Digital Key app on his or her iOS- or Android-based device. The system can provide access to a total of four users for a single vehicle. Each app user can also input his or her preferences regarding seat, mirror and steering wheel adjustment, as well as audio, video and navigation systems, via the app. That information is then linked with that person’s profile, along with the unique ID number of the phone’s built-in NFC device.

To enter the vehicle, a driver merely taps the phone within approximately 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) of the door handle. The NFC reader captures the unique ID of the phone’s NFC unit and confirms authorization for that phone to access the vehicle. If the user is authorized, the vehicle releases its door lock. Once inside the car, the driver can place his or her phone on the NFC pad in the center console. The antenna built into the console will interrogate the NFC device on the phone, once again confirming the phone’s authenticity. The driver can then press the “start engine” button. The NFC connection also enables users to open the trunk or press a panic alarm.

Alternatively, the company reports, the system can work with BLE technology, which provides the option for a much longer read range. What’s more, since older iOS devices lack NFC functionality, this makes BLE the only option for those devices. A driver using BLE could set the Bluetooth option in the app. Once that person’s phone comes within about 10 meters (33 feet) of the vehicle, Johnson says, the car door will automatically unlock. If a user does not have the phone present, or the if phone battery is dead, he or she can utilize one of two traditional key fobs that come with the car—or, conversely, an NFC card.

The solution is intended not only to increase convenience for drivers, but also to improve security. Remote systems have been known to have security vulnerabilities due to the long range at which the wireless transaction takes place. This enables hackers to intercept data between the remote and the car lock.

Hyundai’s Miles Johnson

“Safeguarding the security and safety of our customers is crucial to the company,” Johnson states. Therefore, Hyundai continues to develop data protection for the NFC and BLE system, in order to ensure that no unauthorized parties can access a vehicle. “Hyundai Motor is continuously pursuing the development of effective and robust solutions against hacking attempts.”

In the future, Hyundai reports, once car-sharing solutions become more commonplace, the technology could enable a driver to be granted access to a rental car by tapping a smartphone against that vehicle’s door handle, thereby eliminating the need for a key handoff. It could also allow Hyundai owners to share short-term entry of their vehicles with individuals servicing a car or parking it in a valet service.

Hyundai may be the first automotive manufacturer to provide NFC-based technology for phone-based access, but Tesla offers a keyless access system in its Model 3 vehicle, using a Bluetooth connection.