The Mustang Mach-E's digital key is the best new car feature in years

Not needing to carry around a car key is surprisingly helpful, and the new Ford setup is trouble-free and well-designed.

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The new Ford Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle.

Image: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

The Ford Mustang Mach-E has a lot of exciting and useful features. From the gorgeous design to the enormous sunroof to the 305-mile all-electric range, the Mach-E is a technological tour-de-force—even if Mustang purists wail about it not being a real Mustang

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Mustang or not, the Mach-E is a tech-filled beast. Last week I wrote about the fantastic plug-and-charge feature that allows drivers to pull up to an Electrify America charging station and plug in a charger, and walk away without needing to open up an app or tap on a single screen. I love features that save you time and hassle.

The Mach-E's digital key ticks both those boxes while being incredibly clever besides. It isn't an ultra-wideband digital key implementation or anything new and cutting edge—those are still a little ways off—but in my testing this week, the Bluetooth-powered phone as a key setup is reliable and dead simple to use. And there's even a clever backup plan if your phone dies.

Here's how it works.

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The FordPass app for the Mustang Mach-E.

Screenshots: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

After you've done the necessary steps like buying a Ford Mustang Mach-E and purchased a smartphone, download the FordPass app from the Apple or Google Play app stores.

Then, when you're sitting in your Mach-E with the car turned on, a "Set Up Phone As A Key" button will appear on the FordPass screen on your phone. After a series of straightforward prompts, your phone will connect to the car via Bluetooth and you'll be off. It takes 30 seconds and is so simple I won't even bother to walk you through it.

After a week with the Mach-E, I can say that I never once wished I had a key with me. The car would automatically recognize my phone when I walked up to the car, just as it would if I had the key fob. The lights would turn on and the door open button (which looks a bit like an old school iPhone home button) would glow.

Push the button and the door pops open. Then, once you step inside, a quick push of the start/stop button and the car comes to life. There is no indication that you don't have a key with you and the experience is totally seamless.

But what if your phone dies? This is where the Ford really shines.

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The SecuriCode keypad on the Mustang Mach-E.

Image: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

Just about every Ford and Lincoln sold over the past few decades has had a feature called the SecuriCode keypad and owners absolutely love it. It's a series of five weatherproof buttons on the driver's door that allow owners to enter a code and unlock their cars without a key.

Among other things, it's handy for letting folks lock their cars while engaging in action sports like swimming, hiking or bicycling without worrying about losing their keys or being locked out of their car. It also lets you lock your car while it's running, avoiding the embarrassing spectacle of having your car stolen because you wanted the heat to run while you ran into Starbucks.

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But it serves a key purpose as a phone-as-a-key backup solution. If your phone dies, obviously the Bluetooth connection to the car won't be possible. But you can tap your preset SecuriCode in (the keypad is weatherproof and even works through gloves, if they're thin enough) and the car immediately unlocks.

But, of course, it won't start because you don't have a key:

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The error screen when you try to start the Mustang Mach-E without a key.

Image: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

But Ford has thought of this, too. If you tap on the giant 15.5-inch touchscreen vertical display mounted front-and-center in the center of the dash, a screen pops up asking you to enter a backup passcode that you set up during the initial configuration of the phone as a key feature.

It's not a simple four-digit PIN either. A full alphanumeric keyboard is available, so it's not so easy for someone to guess how to start your car and drive off with it.

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You can enter a passcode to start the Mustang Mach-E without a key or a phone.

Image: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

If you enter the passcode correctly, the car thinks for a bit before displaying a cheerful "Password accepted" message and allowing you to press the brake and start button to fire up the car like normal. There's no degradation of the experience, either. Turning on the vehicle with the passcode, like with the smartphone key option, is identical to using the standard key fob.

It's not the most convenient way to start the vehicle, to be sure, but it adds less than a minute to the process so long as you're handy with an on-screen QWERTY-style keyboard. 

Whenever someone uses the password feature to start the car, it sends a notification via the FordPass app, lest your teenager tries to use the feature to sneak out without you knowing.

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Entering the correct password lets you drive off.

Image: Jordan Golson/TechRepublic

I was surprised how much I liked not carrying a key fob around after more than a decade of having one with me everywhere I went. I thought I was used to it, but it was so easy to leave behind that I didn't miss the extra weight at all.

Thanks to digital payment solutions like Apple Pay and mobile driver's licenses, pretty soon, I won't need to carry a wallet around. And thanks to Ford and digital keys, I won't need to have a fob to get into my car either. Who knew the future was going to lighten the load so much?

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