iPhones Are Now Car Keys Thanks to Apple's New CarKey Feature
Apple leverages NFC tech to deliver phone-as-key functionality, and access can even be shared via text.
The key has been an essential part of the car-owning experience for decades. It is the physical symbol connecting an owner with their car, even when the two are separated. In recent years, the traditional car key has been in transition; first, from a physical key to a fob that sends a signal allowing pushbutton starting and door locking; next up, the key will go away altogether, replaced by a device nearly every human carries whether they own a car or not: their phone. While not the first unto this breach, Apple announced at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference it is getting in on the phone-as-key game with CarKey.
Apple, of course, is quite the player in the mobile-phone market, so its commitment to rolling out CarKey gives phone-as-key tech a great big push forward. As with other phone-as-key solutions, CarKey—which will be built in to Apple's iOS operating system—works based on Near-Field Communication (NFC) protocols. Pair up your iPhone with a vehicle, and the digital key lives in the Wallet app on iOS, the same area where Apple Pay credit card information and airplane boarding passes are stored.
In a demonstration using a 2021 BMW 540i sedan (BMW will be the first automaker to offer the tech), Apple showed that to unlock the car, one simply approaches, taps their iPhone near an NFC reader installed on the car (in this case, the door handle). Once inside, the iPhone must be placed on the BMW's wireless charging pad before the driver can press the start button to fire the engine. You will note how this process is rife with key-like interactions; tapping the door handle and putting the phone on the charging pad both require you to have the phone out and used like a physical key. In this sense, while removing a "key" or fob from your pocket, CarKey in its current state serves more like a literal phone-as-key and is less seamless than a truly keyless experience where you can leave the key in your pocket.
Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi, said the tech giant is working on a standard with industry groups to realize a secure, "real" keyless experience by next year. Apple's U1 ultra-wideband chip, for example, can be used to very accurately determine the iPhone's location with respect to the car, so the feature will work like a keyless entry/start system and driver will not need to pull the phone out for every key-related action. Ultra-wideband tech is key (pun intended) to ultra-secure digital-key security.
What if you lose your phone or it's stolen? Here is a benefit of having a digital key. You can log in to your iCloud account from another device and disable the digital key, like disabling a credit card that goes missing. You cannot do that with a physical key. Apple also allows an option to require Face ID facial recognition or Touch ID fingerprint identification authentication before unlocking the doors for an extra layer of security. Apple also brings car key sharing into the age of social distancing, as owners can share the digital key via iMessage (essentially a text) along with restricted profile options for teens and valet. Face ID or Touch ID authentication is required (like using ApplePay) before sending out the key, so butt-dial-style carkey-sharing will not happen.
Many automakers have already offered smartphone apps for remote entry/start, remote door locking and unlocking, and more, but this marks the first instance of Apple implementing a version of that feature natively into its ecosystem along with its security features, and it has the potential to become a secure, seamless, universal car-key experience. Chevrolet offers a myChevrolet app to allow owners remotely lock/unlock and A/C preconditioning their cars. However, in order to drive off, the key fob still must physically be inside the car. Another tech-savvy automaker, Tesla, also provides an app for remote controlling the car. Actually, Tesla is heavily relying on the app since Model 3 and Model Y do not come with a key fob (but they do come with two NFC valet cards for unlocking or locking the car). It communicates with the car via Bluetooth, so it already works as a keyless entry/start system. Tesla owners can also remotely enable a keyless driving session via their Tesla accounts, in case the paired phone is not present. However, Tesla does not implement two-factor authentication for accessing a Tesla account. Anyone who gets access to a Tesla account login can simply drive off any Tesla associated with it.
When will Apple CarKey be ready for drivers who are willing to dive into the digital age? The first car to support this feature is the 2021 BMW 5 Series, while CarKey itself is part of iOS 14, which will be in beta for a few months before being more widely released in final form. That said, Apple is enabling the feature in today's iOS 13 just in time for when the 2021 BMW 5 Series becomes available to customers next month. We'll be watching closely to see what other automakers adopt the NFC tech that supports Apple CarKey, and how customers take to the new key experience.