GM Investigating Digital Keys

A standard part of the dealership test drive experience involves the salesperson grabbing the key to the car in question out of a lockbox, then accompanying the customer on the drive. A new patent filing suggests General Motors may be looking for a way to give customers access to the car without requiring a salesperson to dig through a box of keys.

GM appears to be working on a patent that would allow customers to have a temporary digital key granted to them in order to gain access to a vehicle they want to test drive.

The system would work like this: Interested customer applies for the key, the dealer verifies the buyer’s interest and identity, dealer approves the test drive and monitors it. If the customer doesn’t want to buy the car, the dealer can revoke the digital key authentication, and it can also do the same to a prior key holder if the vehicle is used and someone other than the first title holder buys it.


It’s unclear what happens if the car is new and the customer is the first buyer – do they get a digital key to use while they own the car or a physical key fob like they would now? Or both? (A digital key could be useful to someone who loses or forgets a key fob – like those key pads on some Ford/Lincoln vehicles that allow entry to their owners.)

The system would make online car buying easier. Imagine if you could build and spec the car you wanted online and then use a digital key to test drive it – you’d minimize interaction with salespeople at your local dealer. You’d have the digital key, you’d show up, you’d test drive the car, and then if you decided to buy it, you’d either be whisked into the finance office or you could fill out all your documentation online while the car is prepped.

That doesn’t mean salespeople will be out of work – a human would still need to shepherd the process and be ready to answer questions – but it does mean that perhaps some of the more stressful interactions between customer and sales person can be cut, thus making the process more pleasant for all involved.

There’s also a level of security involved here. Dealers could stop anyone who tried to turn a test drive into a car theft, or to keep prospective buyers from taking advantage of an extended take-home test drive and extending it too long.

Not to mention the fact it cuts down on the cost of remaking lost keys, or the time wasted trying to track down a lost key while a customer waits impatiently. Your author once worked in the service department of a dealership and, even with fingerprint IDs and passwords protecting the key drawer, the system didn’t always work. Employees often misplaced keys or forgot to return them, thus leaving salespeople to scramble to find the key fob to a car that a customer wanted to drive. And the key box took up a decent chunk of floor space.

Okay, fine, there will still need to be space for a key drawer even if this system works – at least, as long as physical key fobs still exist. But imagine how much smoother the buying process will work if the physical keys stay in one place until the sale is complete.

There may be service applications, as well. A customer leaving his or her vehicle for work wouldn’t have to leave their keys when a temporary digital key could be used. A digital key could also be used to limit and/or monitor bad behavior by unscrupulous techs and service advisors.

It’s just a patent, for now, but it’s an intriguing one.