Could this be the end of car door handles as we know them?

26th September 2017
Alice Matthews

Car keys have come a long way from their original iterations as simply pieces of custom-cut metal that could be inserted into a vehicle's ignition system. Remote keyless systems were first introduced in the early 1980s, allowing drivers to unlock their vehicle from a distance with the push of a button. They've become so commonplace, it's hard to imagine a time without them.

Author: Justin Tejada, The Connected Car

Around 1995, transponder car keys first started rolling out. Using a programmed chip that disarms a car's immobiliser, transponder keys protected vehicles from being hot wired and stolen.

Nowadays, many car keys are not even keys at all, but remote devices that not only unlock your car but also act as a starter, all without a driver ever having to remove them from his or her pocket.

One problem with these, however, is that they fail to unlock a car when the car battery is dead. Despite all our advances, we still need the old fashioned mechanical key when all else goes wrong.

Until now, that is.

Continental has introduced a virtual, unforgeable key that opens doors and starts engines, with the unlocking capability still available even when a car's battery is dead. The new product design is centred around a present and future where car-sharing services and fleet management are more popular than ever, a circumstance that calls for a rethinking of how various automobile systems are accessed.

The product is known as the Continental Smart Access system (CoSmA), and it allows for car doors that open and close independently.

"The intelligent door is a milestone in access technology, as for the first time, we can offer users an all-round package for hands-free and digital operation, from unlocking the car and opening the door to starting the engine," Andreas Wolf, head of Continental's Body & Security business unit, wrote in a statement. "With it, we are enabling an even more convenient and secure driving experience for drivers and offering more design freedom to manufacturers."

The innovation of enabling a car door to open even when the car battery is dead comes via a new means of storing energy.

The driver's side door will have its own supply, taken from the car but stored in the door itself. NFC allows drivers to use the emergency unlock system from a smartphone, which activates a security check before unlocking the doors.

The technology could have major effects on vehicle design, according to Continental.

"It also opens up more design freedom for carmakers, as they no longer have to develop a conventional key with a blade and can dispense entirely with the emergency lock in the door," reads a statement. "In combination with the automatic door opener, even the entire door handle will become obsolete, which offers more options for the exterior design, whilst simultaneously improving the vehicle's aerodynamic resistance."

As ride-sharing and fleet management take up larger and larger market shares in automotives in the coming years, keep an eye on Continental and similarly minded companies for more of this type of innovating. It's the most basic principle of design: Form follows function. As the way we use our vehicles changes, so too will our vehicles themselves.

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