Apple announced at WWDC this week that you’ll be able to add a digital car key to your iPhone or Apple Watch to wirelessly unlock and start your car. The feature is part of the newly revealed iOS 14, and it will work over NFC, Apple says. The first car supported will be the new 2021 BMW 5 Series, which comes out next month, and Apple says it’s working on an industry-wide standard that would use its new U1 ultra wideband chip instead of relying solely on NFC.
Once you’ve paired your iPhone or Apple Watch with a car that supports the digital car keys, if you want to unlock your car, you’ll just need to hold your Apple device near an NFC reader that’s in your car (for example, in the car’s door handle). You won’t be asked to confirm your identity with Face ID or a passcode by default, but you can turn off the so-called “Express Mode” for additional security. Apple says the feature will support the older iOS 13 as well.
If you want to share your car key, you’ll be able to do so via the Messages app. When sharing a digital car key, you’ll be able to restrict certain features in your car, such as limiting acceleration, top speed, or stereo volume. That could be useful if you’re lending your car to a teen driver, for example, and you can revoke the keys later at any time. Also, Apple won’t know when you access your car or who you share your car keys with, the company said in a video.
Apple says the digital car keys work with no network connection, so in theory, you’ll still be able to lock your car even in the depths of a parking garage. The keys are also supposed to work “for up to 5 hours” after your iPhone’s battery has run out and flipped into a “power reserve” mode, which will hopefully alleviate some anxiety about not being able to access your car after being away from a charger for awhile.
Other carmakers already offer digital keys that have similar functionality, but they’re separate apps, not baked directly into Apple’s operating systems, with all of the advantages that can provide. Having a central place in iOS for car keys could also allow you to keep digital keys for multiple cars in one place.
Apple’s reliance on NFC for their digital car keys suggests that the feature could be using the Car Connectivity Consortium’s Digital Key Release 2.0 specification, which was finalized in May. The specification “leverages Near Field Communication (NFC) technology for contactless communication between smartphones and vehicles, and supports a scalable architecture for mass adoption while reducing costs.”
Ultra wideband (UWB) tech has the promise to let you unlock your car much more seamlessly than Apple’s current implementation — the company says you’ll be able to “unlock your car while your iPhone stays in your bag or pocket.” And the Consortium has already confirmed that the Digital Key Release 3.0 specification, which is currently in development, will “leverage Bluetooth Low Energy and Ultra Wideband wireless connectivity to support passive, location-aware keyless access.”
But for now, automakers will need to provide NFC tags, and you’ll need to tap them directly.
Apple’s SK Yong, who is a manager of wireless technologies and ecosystems at the company, according to his LinkedIn, is listed as a director on the Consortium’s board. Emily Schubert, an Apple senior manager of car experience engineering who appeared in Apple’s WWDC video, is listed as Yong’s alternate. Her name, interestingly, is on an Apple patent for using a “portable computing device” for locating a vehicle.
Update June 24th, 7:34PM ET: Removed references to “Car Key,” as Apple doesn’t appear to be giving its digital car key feature an official marketing name. Also added new context from Apple’s website and a developer video about the digital car keys.