Apple’s ‘CarKey’ Will Soon Unlock Your Car with Your iPhone – Here’s How

iPhone CarKey Credit: dmontessi / Shutterstock
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Yesterday Apple released the first betas of iOS 13.4, which introduced some interesting new tidbits for a point release, one of the most interesting of which shows that not only Apple is still working on its plans to let your iPhone replace your car keys, but also offering some insight into exactly how it might go about doing this.

While you won’t actually see it in the iOS 13.4 user interface yet, developers have discovered evidence of a new “CarKey” API that would allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to unlock, lock, and start the engine on cars that are compatible with NFC-based key technology.

We first heard reports two years ago that Apple was working with a group known as the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) on a plan to support the group’s new Digital Key Release 1.0, a standardized specification for downloading and storing digital keys on smartphones. Since the CCC is primarily made up of automotive companies like Audi, BMW, GM, Hyundai, and Volkswagen, this means that car makers are already poised to support the technology, and some are already in the process of doing so.

For Apple’s part, it seems that the feature could be coming very soon. The code in iOS 13.4 for the new API was first discovered by 9to5Mac and subsequently confirmed by MacRumors contributor Steve Moser, and appears to already include strings of text describing how the feature would be used and revealing quite a few details about its implementation.

How CarKey Will Work

For example, it looks like Apple will be using its Wallet app to store these digital car keys in much the same way as payment cards. The Wallet app would handle the initial pairing process for your own car, as well let users manage their keys.

“Place this iPhone on top of the NFC reader in your car. Pairing process may take several minutes, do not remove it from the reader until pairing is done.”

According to the instructions found in iOS 13.4, the normal set up process will require you to place your iPhone on top of an NFC reader in a compatible car, which could apparently “take several minutes” to complete, after which you will either be prompted for a “CarKey code” provided by your dealer or to load up an app from the manufacturer. After this process is complete, the digital key appears in the iPhone Wallet app and can then be added to the Apple Watch from there.

“Enter the CarKey code provided by your car dealer or connect using the [manufacturer’s] app.”

Apple has also made a provision for CarKey digital keys to be shared with other people directly from the Wallet app, as shown by strings like:

“[owner] has invited you to use their [car model] with unlock & drive access. This allows you to use your iPhone and Apple Watch to unlock/lock the car, start the engine and drive.”

What’s even more interesting is that Apple appears to be leveraging the same always-on NFC technology behind its Express Transit feature, which means users wouldn’t necessarily need to authenticate with Face ID or Touch ID to use CarKey, although it does appear that enabling the “express mode” feature would be optional.

“To use CarKey, hold iPhone or Apple Watch to reader. It will work automatically, without requiring Face ID. You can change express mode settings in Wallet.”

If enabled, however, this also means CarKey could likely be used even if the iPhone or Apple Watch battery was dead, which is something that would be necessary if Apple expects users to be able to leave their physical keys behind.

When Is CarKey Coming?

It’s unclear right now if CarKey is a proprietary Apple technology that needs to be specifically supported by car manufacturers or whether it’s part of the Digital Key specification released by the CCC, which recently published a new 2.0 version of the spec that should be available in time for at least some 2021 model vehicles. Either way, however, it would still require an NFC-enabled car, so it’s going to be limited to newer models, and could conceivably be marketed as a factory-installed option much like CarPlay even if it’s not an Apple-specific feature.

Of course, the presence of CarKey APIs in this first iOS 13.4 beta doesn’t by any means guarantee that it will arrive with the iOS 13.4 release either. Apple has often added new APIs early on for testing purposes. For example, code was found in iOS 13.0 last spring for Apple’s rumoured AirTags, which have yet to materialize. Two years ago, Apple also pulled AirPlay 2 and Messages in the Cloud from iOS 11.3, despite the appearance of these features in early iOS 11.3 betas. Still, the existence of these APIs at all reveals that Apple is definitely working on the feature, and the appearance of it in iOS 13 at all suggests we’re likely to see it debut before the release of iOS 14 later this year.

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