Apple’s latest iOS will let the iPhone act as a digital car key.
Apple’s latest iOS will let the iPhone act as a digital car key.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

SMART MOBILITY iOS devices as digital car key—a new opportunity for OEMs

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

With the latest release of its iOS operating system, Apple is turning the iPhone and the Apple Watch into digital car keys via NFC technology. In order to make use of this functionality, however, OEMs will need to have their own iOS apps that work with Apple’s Wallet as well as NFC receivers connected to car lock and ignition systems.

Apple’s iPhone and Apple Watch have many innovative capabilities, but as of July 2020, with the release of iOS 13.6, they gained an additional feature—the ability to unlock, lock and/or start a car wirelessly. This new Car Key feature makes use of the near-field communication (NFC) Digital Key 2.0 specification from the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which Apple is a member of. Users merely need to hold their iPhone or Apple Watch close to a qualifying car’s door handles to be able to access the vehicle. They can then put their iOS device in the car’s wireless charger or NFC reader to start the ignition (assuming these devices are present in the vehicle and connected to both lock and ignition systems).

Even if a user’s iPhone battery has run out, the Car Key feature can work for up to five additional hours via the phone’s Power Reserve mode. In fact, in a number of new cars available starting next year, users of iPhone models 11 and above won’t even have to take their phones out of their pockets thanks to the devices’ U1 ultra-wideband communication chip.

If car owners prefer, no authentication will be required for the Car Key feature, so users can activate it with just a tap of their finger. The process is secure and employs a unique token that’s shared between the iPhone or Apple Watch and the car (the iOS devices utilize a user’s location and Apple ID data for verification). For car owners that want additional security, Touch ID or Face ID authentication can be mandated to unlock and/or start a vehicle.

Vehicle owners’ digital car keys are managed by the iPhone Wallet. During the setup process, Apple’s iOS will identify the car and then redirect to an appropriate app from the car’s manufacturer. This means that carmaker OEMs will need to have an app available to allow the Car Key function to work on the iPhone (or, by extension, the Apple Watch). If this setup process fails, users can add a digital car key to their iPhone Wallet manually by using a PIN code generated by the automaker’s app.

Users can share their digital car keys with up to five people via iMessage. They can also adjust their settings to allow these individuals to either have full access to the vehicle (including the ability to start the ignition) or just the capacity to unlock the car’s doors. Keys can be shared temporarily or revoked if needed.

The Car Key feature will work on the following iOS devices:

  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (second-generation)
  • Apple Watch Series 5

All of these devices must be running iOS 13.6 / WatchOS 6.2.8 or above.

The Car Key feature won’t be compatible with all cars; BMW has announced it will support the feature with its 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-, 8-, X5-, X6-, X7-, X5M-, X6M-, and Z4-series models produced after July 1, 2020. BMW’s Connected app allows BMW owners to confirm whether their vehicle is compatible with the new functionality. A number of other automakers are expected to add support for the Car Key function by the end of the year.