Cars are getting so advanced and so connected so quickly. It’s almost getting frightening, especially for old souls like myself. One of the new automotive innovations that seems to be exploding in the industry is the digital key. Tesla sort of started this, with its Model 3, as that car doesn’t have an actual key. You use your mobile phone to unlock the car and if that dies, you get a little hotel-like key card. Now, though, the new BMW 8 Series and Audi Q8 can be unlocked with mobile phone digital keys, as well. It seems as if it’s going to be a new trend in the industry. And I don’t like it.
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There seems to be no ownership of the car, when the key is a digital, non-existent series of ones and zeroes. With a proper car key, or even a key fob, when you’re away from your car, you have a little piece of it in your pocket. That little key is the only thing that unlocks the car and you can hold it in your hands wherever you are. You’re always physically connected to the car, even when you’re not near it. There’s something to that.
It’s sentimental, of course, and digital keys provide easier use and even more features than a standard key, such as being able to offer friends one-time access “keys” to their mobile phone from anywhere in the world. That’s a practical and helpful feature. But it still isn’t a key.
Even key fobs, as cool and convenient as they are, lack that same feeling of holding a proper metal key in your hand. While it’s lovely to never have to pull a key out of your pocket anymore, being that a fob allows you to just walk up to the car, grab the door handle and get in, pushing a button to start the car is far less satisfying as sticking the metal key in the ignition and twisting.
I know it sounds trivial and almost silly, but there’s something special about an actual metal key that is far more enjoyable to have and use than key fob and especially more so than a digital key. With my E36, I had an old-school BMW key with no keyless entry. The only button on that key was the Roundel which activated a little light on the front of the key so you could see where you were sticking it at night (there’s a joke in there somewhere). Then, I owned a 2012 Volkswagen Passat and even that had a proper key, a little flip-out piece on the key fob. While I wasn’t in the car, I used to just flip the key out and put it back, over and over, while standing in line for something or listening to someone boring talk. It was just a little thing to do. Can’t do that with a key fob or a digital key. Although, I guess the phone you use for the digital key can do a lot more than that. But still.
And I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Many BMW fans, especially, miss old keys because they like looking for/collecting classic keys. It’s also cool to see the different styles of keys throughout the years and to know where yours fits in. Key fobs all look the same and digital keys literally don’t exist in the physical world. They’re in the Matrix, never to actually be seen or felt. You can’t collect that.
There’s just something tactile about a metal key, something that feels good. Turning an ignition with a key to start the car feels good, it feels mechanical. It’s the same sort of satisfaction you get when winding a mechanical watch; you’re doing something to physically and mechanically start the car. And that sort of thing is just another small connection to the automobile we’re losing.