iOS 16.4 Hints That Newer Vehicles May Drop Car Key Support for Older iPhones

Apple Car Key BMW iPhone Face ID Wallet App Credit: Apple
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If hints in the latest iOS 16.4 betas are any indication, automakers may soon be dropping support for using older iPhone models as digital car keys as they shift their focus away from Near Field Communications (NFC) to rely exclusively on Ultra Wideband technology.

While Car Key hasn’t yet taken off the way Apple hoped, it’s become a core feature on BMW models, and last year Genesis and Kia also got into the game. However, one factor in its slower adoption rate is the impracticality of using NFC to unlock and start your car.

Although Car Key offered some advantages over traditional wireless key fobs, including better security and convenient sharing features, it was significantly less convenient to use when it arrived in iOS 13.6 in its initial NFC-only implementation.

As with Apple Pay, using Car Key via NFC requires that you take your iPhone out of your pocket and hold it within about two inches of your vehicle’s lock. Likewise, using Car Key to start your vehicle necessitates placing your iPhone in a specific spot on your centre console so the in-car systems can detect the presence of your digital car key.

That’s a big hassle compared to a wireless key fob that works from inside your pocket — and most of the cars that support Car Key are higher-end models that support a fully wireless and contactless key fob experience, with push buttons for unlocking your car and starting it up.

Needless to say, this made the early implementations of Car Key little more than a novelty. It’s no surprise that carmakers weren’t beating a path to Apple’s door in a rush to add Car Key to their vehicles.

Fortunately, carmakers like BMW were already at work on a better version of Car Key that would use Ultra Wideband support instead of NFC to bring a more seamless experience of unlocking and starting your vehicle without reaching for your iPhone. This became part of the Digital Key 3.0 standard, combining Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) and Ultra Wideband (UWB) while maintaining NFC for backward compatibility.

Older iPhones Left Behind?

Unfortunately, the Digital Key 3.0 spec doesn’t require that carmakers support NFC, and it appears that Apple is preparing for this eventuality in iOS 16.4.

The folks over at 9to5Mac have found code references in the third developer beta of iOS 16.4 that would advise users that their vehicle is “not compatible with this iPhone/Apple Watch model.” The code appears to apply to devices that support only NFC and not UWB.

To be clear, that doesn’t leave out as many iPhone models as you might think. Even though NFC has been around since the 2014 iPhone 6 and the original Apple Watch, Car Key requires newer NFC background tag reading technology that didn’t arrive until the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and Apple Watch Series 5. This means that Car Key wasn’t compatible with any Apple devices released before 2018 anyway.

Iphone Xr

Apple released its first UWB-equipped devices the following year with the iPhone 11 lineup. The company also snuck a UWB chip into the Apple Watch Series 6 in 2020 (but not the Apple Watch SE) — an addition which doesn’t yet seem to serve any other purpose.

So, if BMW or Genesis/Kia were to drop NFC support in future models, it wouldn’t be that big of a problem. The iPhone XS and iPhone XR have been off the market for at least two years, and it’s been even longer since the Apple Watch Series 5 was on sale. That said, it’s important to remember that even Apple’s latest “SE” devices — the 2022 iPhone SE and Apple Watch SE — still lack the U1 chip that powers UWB.

NFC Car Key Still Has One Advantage

Apple may be laying the foundation for NFC-less Car Key, but that doesn’t guarantee that carmakers will phase it out any time soon, and there’s a good reason for them to leave it in.

NFC is still part of the Digital Key 3.0 spec as it offers an important benefit over UWB and Bluetooth LE communications: It can be used even when your iPhone’s battery is dead.

That’s a pretty important feature since it could mean the difference between getting home safely and being stranded in the middle of nowhere when confronted with a dead iPhone.

Apple pioneered this low-power mode with Express Transit in 2019, and it’s a core aspect of the Digital Key features that arrived in iOS 15.1since the same scenario would apply to your home, office, or hotel room. You don’t want to be locked out merely because your battery is dead.

It’s hard to imagine carmakers removing such an important safety feature, which makes us wonder whether there could be something else going on here. The code found in iOS 16.4 doesn’t specifically mention NFC — it merely talks about cars being incompatible with some iPhone models. There may be NFC-related changes coming to Car Key that would limit support for older iPhone models, much like the NFC hardware in pre-2018 iPhones has never supported Car Key or Apple’s digital keys in the first place.

[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]

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