The electronic car key, for drivers, it's never far away on any journey. Now researchers at BMW are looking to make it more useful. Their dream: the key of the future will unlock much more than just car doors.

They've taken the wireless key already used to many cars and added an NFC, or near-field communication, function. NFC works over a distance of a few centimeters and is already used in contactless payment or ticketing applications.

Jorg Preissinger, BMW Group Research and Technologies: "The BMW driver today already carries hsi BMW key with him, so we want to enable the BMW key with an NFC interface to enable new features and services for the customer outside the car."

Some gadgets already include NFC, but by building it into a car key, BMW can link it with the car's navigation system. This already allows for reservation of things like hotel rooms and train tickets.

Tobias Schollermann, BMW Group: "The new thing is we can store this electronic ticket on our NFC key. We start in Munich main station and we travel to Berlin main station. Now we get an overview about the price and duration of our business trip. Now the ticket has been generated in the backend, downloaded to the car and stored on the key. So I can directly change to the train and the conductor can check my ticket from the key.

BMW says the keys are more secure than many mobile devices, such as laptops or cell phones, because it's both encrypted and a closed system. The company sees such keys as potentially useful for all stages of a journey.

The electornic key for a hotel booked online could be stored in the key allowing the driver to bypass check-in, and when it comes time to check-out, an electronic money function in the key could settle the bill.

The key can also hold vital data about the car, allowing the driver to check if it's locked, look-up the amount of fuel, check service data, and even the GPS location of the vehicle.

Jorg Preissinger, BMW Group Research and Technologies: "We are developing the key. The product launch in cars will depend on the infrastructure of contactless payment terminals or ticketing terminals in the worldwide markets."

BMW says they key will also be able to replace other contactless devices, such as card keys for offices and laptop login dongles.