Will Apple CarKey Make Physical Keys a Thing of the Past?

It’s sometimes amazing to think how quickly certain car features, like keyless entry and Apple CarPlay, become almost a requirement. Some manufacturers even provide systems to put the latter in their classic cars. And now, with many vehicles featuring push-button start, the physical key may soon be nothing more than a backup tool. That’s certainly a possibility with what Apple is adding in the upcoming iOS update: Apple CarKey.

What is Apple CarKey?

The Apple CarKey feature, Motor Trend explains, is built around near-field communication. It’s something that many smartphones, not just iPhones, already use. For example, NFC is what lets you use your phone to pay for groceries instead of your credit card. In fact, Apple CarKey will be part of the existing Wallet app, Engadget reports, which also stores credit cards, IDs, and boarding passes.

To use it, the vehicle owner first registers their key fob with the Apple CarKey system. Then, when they approach their car, they tap their iPhone or Apple Watch to a specific part of the door, Motor1 explains. That’s where the NFC reader is located. The reader receives the key info and unlocks the vehicle. And to start the vehicle, the driver places their phone on a built-in wireless charging pad and presses the start button.

The vehicle’s owner can even share their key with other people via iMessage, MT reports. In addition, this shared key can be modified to limit top speed, radio volume, even horsepower. Think of it like Ford’s MyKey, only for iOS.

Obviously, relying on a digital vs a physical key, or even a key fob, carries some extra security risks. However, Apple has addressed at least some of them. Firstly, CarKey can be locked behind Face or Touch ID before the car unlocks. Secondly, according to Robb Report, the feature, when fully implemented, will leave its encryption keys on the iPhone itself. Therefore, all the personal data stays there, rather than in the cloud.

Also, running out of battery shouldn’t pose any problems. The NFC system works on a power reserve that lasts up to 5 hours after low-charge shut-off.

When will Apple CarKey work in my car?

Unlocking a dark-blue 2021 BMW 5-Series sedan with an iPhone using Apple CarKey
2021 BMW 5-Series with Apple CarKey compatibility | BMW

As of this writing, only BMW has confirmed that its vehicles will work with Apple CarKey. In fact, a 2021 5-Series sedan was used to demonstrate the technology on stage.

BMW reports that any 2-, 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-, and 8-Series manufactured after July 1st, 2020, will be compatible with Apple CarKey. In addition, any X5, X6, X7, X5M, X6M, and Z4 made after that date will also work with the technology.

It’s possible more OEMs will be compatible in the future, Engadget reports. In addition to BMW, GM, Hyundai, Audi, and VW were involved in a 2018 consortium regarding NFC technology. Hyundai and Kia already offer a brand-specific app that acts similarly to Apple CarKey, The Drive reports, as does GM.

Apple CarKey will be bundled with iOS 14, which launches into public beta in July 2020, TechRadar reports. The full release, though, probably won’t be until September 2020.

How does it compare to other keyless systems?

As stated previously, some OEMs already offer smartphone apps that let users unlock and start their cars. But these are limited to a specific brand; you can’t use the Chevrolet app to unlock a Kia, for example. Apple CarKey, though, would be compatible across multiple brands.

But, besides the afore-mentioned security risks, there is a downside to Apple CarKey: you need to take your iPhone out. That’s the problem with the ‘near’ in ‘near-field communication’: it only works over fairly short distances.

Most keyless entry and ignition systems don’t use NFC, Edmunds explains. Instead, the key fob sends out a radio, or similar low-frequency signal, that gets picked up by a receiver. Once the signal is validated, the vehicle can be unlocked and started. It requires a separate fob, but it still works even if the key’s in your pocket or in a bag.


How Cars Are Moving Towards Phones as Key Technology

Even Tesla doesn’t use NFC. Normally, you can access the Model 3 or Model Y using special key cards. And these use RFID, like other keyless entry fobs, USA Today reports. However, you can also use the Tesla smartphone app to unlock and start the Model 3 or Model Y, without taking your phone out. But that’s because, instead of NFC, it works via longer-range Bluetooth.

However, according to The Verge, Apple is developing a version of CarKey that works over so-called ultra-wideband. This would be a new industry standard with a longer range than NFC, which would address this issue. That’s set to release in 2021.

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