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Android can finally unlock your car — but there’s a catch

a photo of the Google Pixel 6 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Phones can do just about everything these days; it’s even possible to use them as car keys, provided you have the right car or handset to make it work. And by right handset, I mean an iPhone. Or did, rather, because Google has started rolling out this feature as well.

Google has just launched (opens in new tab) a digital car key that will let you do all the things your ordinary key fob can do. Of course, being a brand new feature, it’s not universally available right now.

The digital car key has launched in select countries today, but it’s only available on Google Pixel 6, Pixel 6 Pro, and Samsung Galaxy S21 handsets, What’s more, it’ll only work with compatible BMW cars. So don’t throw away the key to your old Honda Civic just yet.

That being said, it’s about darn time Google got this feature going. For starters Apple launched a similar feature last June, with users able to utilize the NFC chip in their iPhone or Apple Watch as a way to unlock or start their car. Furthermore, Apple’s car key feature would continue working for up to five hours after the phone has run out of power.

More recently Apple promised a newer version of this feature would be powered by Ultrawideband (UWB), provided users have a device with a U1 chip. That's likely based on the new Digital Car Key 3.0 standard laid out by the Car Connectivity consortium back in July (opens in new tab).

gif of android digital car key in action

(Image credit: Google)

Automakers themselves have introduced a similar feature, powered by a companion app. Tesla is a notable example, with the Tesla app acting as a digital car key that automatically locks, unlocks and starts the car based on proximity.

Google hasn’t specified how its digital car key will work, though Pixel 6 compatibility suggests there is a version that doesn’t use UWB. Because while the Pixel 6 Pro and Galaxy S21 Plus and Galaxy S21 Ultra support UWB, the Pixel 6 and standard Galaxy S21 do not.

It’s not been confirmed which BMW cars are compatible. But it seems likely that this feature will be available on the same cars that support the iPhone’s digital car key, listed on BMW’s website (opens in new tab). No doubt upcoming cars, like the BMW iX and BMW i4, will be compatible as well.

But that’s not all. Google is also letting users set Android Auto to launch automatically when you connect your phone to your car. Which I thought it did anyway, but apparently I am mistaken.

On top of this Google is adding an always-on play button to the home screen, for better eyes-free control over your tunes, with voice search support coming for music and media apps. Smart replies are also, finally, arriving, which should make the prospect of screening or responding to text messages while you drive a lot less of a chore.

Tom Pritchard
Tom Pritchard

Tom is the Tom's Guide's Automotive Editor, which means he can usually be found knee deep in stats the latest and best electric cars, or checking out some sort of driving gadget. It's long way from his days as editor of Gizmodo UK, when pretty much everything was on the table. He’s usually found trying to squeeze another giant Lego set onto the shelf, draining very large cups of coffee, or complaining that Ikea won’t let him buy the stuff he really needs online.