Growing interest in alternatives to conventional car ownership is triggering a boom in car-sharing services. To realize these new car and vehicle services as convenient and secure as possible, the international technology company Continental and the Belgian automotive service group D'leteren have formed a joint venture to develop and implement various car-sharing services. The joint venture is called OTA keys.
It is named after the new company's largest product area: purely virtual car keys that are transmitted and used wirelessly via cell phones. This technology can be used for company fleets, car-sharing companies, and car-rental agencies alike. The new company is headquartered in Brussels.
"Continental has more than 20 years experience in the development and production of electronic car keys. We have been working on a purely virtual car key since 2008. OTA keys will enable us to offer car-sharing providers, fleet operators and car-rental agencies a complete service package to give customers a convenient, secure and even spontaneous driving experience," explains Andreas Wolf, head of Continental's Body & Security business unit. "OTA keys is a clear sign of the diverse opportunities that intelligent transportation systems will offer."
"As a service company in the automotive industry, we have been working for years on a range of solutions to create easy to use and secure services. OTA keys broadens the options available to us considerably and, above all, will give the end customer an exceptional experience: the ability to drive away spontaneously with no bureaucracy whatsoever – with providers all over Europe offering this service. Asia and America will be our next targets," explains Thibaut Cardinael, managing director of OTA keys, coming from D'leteren.
How the virtual key works
The heart of the OTA keys system is the virtual smartphone key. The smartphone exchanges data with the vehicle using near field communication (NFC) or the energy-saving standard Bluetooth low energy (BLE). The driver uses a smartphone app to book the required vehicle at his or her convenience. The OTA keys system then sends an encrypted forgery-proof data record to the cell phone. The virtual key is saved on the smartphone's SIM card. It contains the access authorization for the required vehicle. Using the NFC or BLE standard, the cell phone transmits the data (authentication, vehicle and diagnostic data, and user profile) to the reader in the car. This can be integrated into the vehicle doors, for example. Another receiver inside the car verifies the virtual key in the smartphone before the engine is started, and the vehicle is ready to go.
Thibaut Cardinael is confident that the new company can change the way how the everyday user of different mobility services will interact with their vehicles. "We can offer fleet operators a range of ways that will make the vehicles convenient and easy to use. The connected version via the virtual smartphone key is the most advanced version. This shows what can be realized with intelligent connectivity, secure data transmission and a high-performance backend."
One app makes new mobility concepts quick and easy
OTA keys provides its customers with the necessary digital infrastructure. This also includes an app for the end customers' smartphones, which is tailored to the requirements of the respective fleet or car-sharing operator. The user can use the app to find, select, and reserve available vehicles. The smartphone can then even navigate the user to the car's location. It's even possible to rent a vehicle spontaneously with the OTA keys service. In this case, the user only needs to hold his or her cell phone against the door of the free car and a virtual key is automatically generated on the server. This virtual key is then sent to the smartphone once an availability check has been done. The virtual key unlocks the car and, depending on how it is programmed, the app retrieves further data on the condition of the vehicle, before becoming a user-friendly navigation system.
The OTA keys system has already proven beneficial. A pilot project was completed in Toulouse and a car-sharing fleet in Monaco is now the first to use the system developed by OTA keys.
Cheaper, more secure, and therefore more practical: the virtual key in practice
While most car-sharing fleets currently still rely on systems that combine all intelligence within the vehicle, the OTA keys system uses smartphone intelligence and only requires NFC or BLE technology within the car. This approach has many benefits. The main advantage is the considerable reduction in costs. By using a virtual key, investment per vehicle can be reduced significantly.
The second major advantage of the virtual car key from OTA keys is its exceptionally high level of security. It works in the same data space and according to the same principles as the payment functions that are stored on an increasing number of cell phones, and therefore meets banks' strict requirements. In addition, data is only synchronized between the cell phone and vehicle in an encrypted format. The user is not inconvenienced by these security procedures, quite the opposite. This makes the system easier to use than ever.
Outlook: from the virtual car key to the personal mobility manager
And this is just the beginning, since the OTA keys system is freely scalable and can be easily expanded to include new functions at any time. For example, it will also be possible in the future to save personal vehicle settings on the virtual car key. The system already enables automatic Bluetooth pairing with the cell phone. This could also be used in the future to transmit favorite radio channels or seat preferences so that the driver instantly feels at home in a short-term rental car. The digital key from the joint venture of Continental and D'Ieteren also provides all the features necessary for use in other modes of transport. This way, OTA keys is also a forerunner of the diverse opportunities in the field of intelligent transportation systems, which Continental identifies as a growth market.