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When Apple surprised us with its new Car Key feature in an iOS 13.6 point release last year, it was a really exciting concept that sadly didn’t live up to the hype in its initial implementation, but fortunately, it looks like that could soon be changing.
What Car Key has promised us all along is the ability to unlock our cars securely with nothing more than an iPhone or Apple Watch. Along with this would come the ability to share digital car keys with friends and family members via iMessage, which could also be set to expire and possibly even include additional restrictions on when and how they could be used.
For instance, you could issue a digital car key to a teen driver in your family that would only allow them to access the car during daylight hours and — assuming your carmaker supported the feature — load a special driving profile that would restrict maximums speed and keep the vehicle running in “eco” mode rather than “sport” mode.
Unfortunately, what we got last year from BMW — the only carmaker to be on board with the new standard right away — was an NFC-based implementation that still requires you to hold your iPhone or Apple Watch up to a sensor on your car to actually unlock it. To make matters even worse, you need to remove your iPhone from your pocket and place it on a specially designated area of the console to start the car. Further, for security purposes, you naturally had to unlock your iPhone first using either Face ID or your password.
If you think all this sounds more complicated than just using your keys, you’re right.
Most cars — and especially BMWs — already have keyless entry systems that will let you leave your actual keys in your pocket and simply either push a button on the door handle or simply touch it to open your vehicle. The same is also true when getting into the car, which can usually be started with the press of a button while your keys remain in your pocket.
So it’s fair to say that Car Key in many ways felt like a step backward, although it still wasn’t without its advantages. For example, it was more secure than a simple set of physical car keys since a would-be thief would need to be able to unlock your iPhone before they could actually gain access to your car. Likewise, the ability to share digital keys could be a real bonus in many families, although at this point BMW hasn’t yet fully implemented multiple profiles based on these keys.
Of course, lots of new technologies take time to fully reach their potential, however, and Car Key is no exception, so while the initial rollout was impractical at best, we remained hopeful that the technology would continue to improve, and now it looks like BMW is getting ready to take it to the next step.
Ultra Wideband Car Key
BMW has just announced plans to roll out an enhanced version of its technology that will add ultra wideband support to allow for a much more versatile implementation of Apple’s Car Key feature.
Dubbed BMW Digital Key Plus, the feature is clearly aimed specifically at iPhone users, making reference to using the U1 chip of iPhone 11 and later models to allow users to unlock and start their vehicles while leaving their iPhone in their pocket.
While BMW doesn’t mention the Apple Watch in its press release, it’s quite likely the feature will be extended to the Apple Watch Series 6 as well, since that model also includes a U1 chip, which has yet to show a reason for its existence.
While that would make the feature exclusive to the newest Apple Watch model, it’s worth keeping in mind that Car Key in general is only compatible with the Apple Watch Series 5 and later.
Users of non-U1 equipped iPhone and Apple Watch devices would presumably still be able to use the standard NFC-based Digital Key feature that BMW launched on many of its 2021 models last year.
At this point, Digital Key Plus has only been announced as coming to the new all-electric BMW iX, and there’s no word on when other models will gain support for it, nor whether BMW will offer an aftermarket upgrade for prior models (assuming that’s even possible).
Meanwhile, Business Korea shared the news today that Hyundai is also planning to unveil support for Apple Car Key this year, although it doesn’t specify whether the automaker plans to implement the NFC or UWB version of the technology.