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Key fob morphs into high-tech wonder

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Key fob morphs into high-tech wonder

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

There are big aspirations for the tiny key fob, the device on your key chain that unlocks your car at the touch of a button.

Delphi Holdings LLP, by adding a tiny chip, can turn a key fob into a conduit between a driver's cell phone and vehicle.

With a special application, a motorist still at the office can use a cell phone to remotely start his car or truck, adjust the temperature, confirm the vehicle is locked, detect an intruder, check the fuel level and make sure the tires are properly inflated.

If the gas tank is running low, a couple of taps on the phone's screen locates a gas station and downloads directions, so the navigation system is programmed and ready when the driver reaches the car parked blocks away.

The key fob system is being well received by automakers, but Delphi declined to talk about any pending contracts.

The beauty of the system is that it works on any smart phone, with any vehicle, and sends commands remotely, said Bob Schumacher, Delphi's general director of advanced product and business development. Many connectivity platforms in cars now sync up a phone from inside the vehicle or require a system to be embedded in the car's computer.

In a world where consumers are passionate about -- and tethered to -- their cell phones, being able to provide safe and seamless connectivity in their vehicle is a key competitive advantage.

The wireless connectivity of Bluetooth is prevalent today, but the future is the smart phone that goes further by offering Internet access, as well as the ability to retrieve and exchange data and use applications, or apps.

Bluetooth is almost a must today, said Chris Preuss, president of General Motors Co.'s OnStar unit. Ninety percent of 2011 GM models will have Bluetooth capability, he said.

And many people already have a smart phone.

"By 2013, anyone able to buy a new car will already have a smart phone and want it to interface with their car," Schumacher said.

Apps would advise driver

Delphi has spent the past year working on two approaches to car connectivity; both systems piggyback on the capabilities of smart phones.

The two-way key fob connects the phone to the body computer in a vehicle that controls all functions and diagnoses any problems.

The second initiative links the phone directly to the vehicle, via Delphi's new computing platform. Phone apps appear on a large screen in the car's center console, replacing the traditional stack with the radio, navigation system, and heating and cooling controls.

Any app can be run when the vehicle is in park. A few continue to operate when the vehicle is in motion, such as Google Maps, which provides a sophisticated navigation system with satellite and street views.

"This is the future of auto infotainment," Schumacher said. "It looks like a cockpit and advises the driver."

The direction fits with the overall trend of leveraging Bluetooth and smart phone power and popularity to deliver what people want, said Doug Newcomb, senior technology editor of auto website Edmunds.com in Santa Monica, Calif.

"People just need a smart phone and an app," he said. The whole idea of imbedding a phone in the car already is becoming antiquated.

Mike Marshall, who does vehicle consulting research for J.D. Power & Associates, agrees cars don't need built-in onboard applications today.

"Many automakers don't have an embedded system and don't need one when there is so much connectivity at our fingertips," he said.

Schumacher said adoption of Delphi's computing platform could still be two or three years from implementation in a production vehicle.

But the key fob could be on the market sooner.

Delphi has unique idea

The idea is to keep the fob small.

Delphi's focus groups found consumers don't want to carry a cell phone as well as a similar-sized key fob, said Todd Oman, a Delphi research engineer.

That led to the eureka moment: Use the display area of the phone and use a small key fob, which everyone has, as transmitter and receiver. Delphi's prototype fob works within 33 feet of the phone, and can talk to a car 0.6 miles away, Oman said.

Vesa Luiro of Nokia, the world's largest cell phone company, isn't aware of a similar product to Delphi's key fob.

Newcomb of Edmunds.com said some automakers offer sophisticated systems that can remotely perform functions -- but they require a subscription. And there are car security systems that can check for intruders, but they require installation of an expensive, remote-start system.

Newcomb applauds the key fob idea as a way to put technology on a less-expensive car -- much like Ford Motor Co.'s Sync imbedded infotainment system, which has been a strong seller.

"The trend is for people to carry fewer things," Newcomb said, "and for their smart phone to incorporate more."

Read more: http://www.detnews.com/article/20100609/BIZ04/6090351/1148/auto01/Key-fob-morphs-into-high-tech-wonder#ixzz0qMJQByqB

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