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Tesla’s next car will seamlessly unlock with UWB, FCC leak suggests

Tesla’s next car will seamlessly unlock with UWB, FCC leak suggests


The key fob still exists — for now

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Apple and Samsung have been quietly contributing to a new technology to find and seamlessly unlock your car with your phone, without even pulling it out of your pocket — and Tesla may be one of the first with the tech. Tesla is actively working on building UWB into its cars, according to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

On September 9th, the company submitted six new “products” for the FCC’s consideration, including two key fobs, a security controller, and a number of “endpoints” that would be installed inside the frame and cabin of a vehicle:

According to the FCC documents, at least three of those items explicitly support UWB communication.

What is UWB? 

Ultra-wideband just means high-frequency radio communications above 500MHz, but it now refers to two specific ideas:

UWB is a standard where devices broadcast short, low-power pulses to reveal and securely verify their location. It’s useful for item trackers, digital car keys, and to keep robots from bumping into each other.

5G UWB is a marketing term for short-range, high-speed cellular internet connections that operate at millimeter-wave frequencies.

What’s more, Tesla’s FCC filing is unusual in that it includes a complete operational description of the technology, something that’s usually redacted. The highlights: it’s a standards-based implementation of UWB, which means UWB phones from Apple and Samsung should theoretically be compatible, and it’s designed to let you know how far away you are from the car.

That "ranging" is helpful to avoid replay attacks that try to trick your car into thinking its key fob is closer than it actually is. But it also theoretically unlocks the ability to find your car in a crowded parking lot using your phone, something Samsung is already planning to release an app for later this year.

A selection from Tesla’s operational description of the tech.
A selection from Tesla’s operational description of the tech.

When I spoke to UWB chip supplier NXP last year, company CTO Lars Reger told me that future cars would likely need several of these UWB endpoints inside the car, possibly at the door handles, to properly triangulate your location and know whether you’re inside or outside so, say, your kids won’t be able to turn on the engine if you’re not actually in the cabin. Apparently, Tesla thinks the B-pillars (located between the front and rear side windows of a car) and a piece of fascia might be good places to put those antennas, too.

A drawing of the inside of one of the UWB key fobs.
A drawing of the inside of one of the UWB key fobs.

None of this means that Tesla will necessarily add the tech to its cars, but FCC documents are usually a pretty good sign that it’s not just an experiment. FCC filings are typically one of the last waypoints before a product comes to market, as they’re only required if you’re going to import, sell, or do widespread testing of a radio product in the US.

Last we checked, BMW was the only other automaker that’s committed to UWB.

Update February 3rd, 12:10PM ET: The FCC appears to have retracted Tesla’s leaked operational description of UWB, since it’s no longer available at our link or the FCC’s website. You can still see a screenshot of the most relevant part in our post above.