Digital car keys gain popularity as BMW and Apple team up to unlock cars with your phone

    During Apple’s 2020 WWDC keynote overnight, Apple announced a new feature of iPhones, turning them into a digital car key. While code for Apple’s CarKey feature was found in previous developer builds of iOS, it’s only now been officially announced.

    During the event, Emily Schubert, Senior Manager of Car Experience Engineering at Apple, detailed the feature. She highlighted the first car to support unlocking your car with your iPhone, will be the 2021 BMW 5 series.

    The system works using NFC and you ‘tap to unlock’. From the footage, it looks like the phone has to be really close to the door to authenticate. This is very similar to the proximity required when you tap and pay at an eftpos terminal.

    Schubert then places the phone in on a charging pad in the center console, which smartly also authenticates the car to start. It does however then also take another step, which is pressing the start/stop button to initiate the vehicle startup.

    The technology is linked to your Apple account and if you ever lost your phone, just get to your a device with an internet connection, log into your iCloud account and disable it.

    It’ll be interesting to see if a disabled key instantly slows the vehicle to a stop, or it’ll only prevent starting in the future.

    Having a digital key has several benefits, including being able to add permission for others to unlock and drive the vehicle. BMW are setting that limit to 5 and can be done by sending someone an iMessage.

    Given BMW also announced similar functionality with Android last year, expect SMS and Email options as well.

    While Tesla has used your mobile phone as the key for many years now, it’s great to see other automakers catching up. Car keys are bulky and often uncomfortable to carry around. If you have a smart door lock, or garage door opener, it’s possible to leave the house keys at home as well.

    The one thing BMW are offering that goes a step further than Tesla, is the ability to share a key with a driver, but restrict the capabilities of the vehicle for some drivers. The most logical implementation for this is learner drivers, digitally restricting the performance of the vehicle. This is something Tesla should definitely consider adopting.

    Where Tesla’s solution is better, is the unlock experience. With a Tesla, the phone stays in your pocket, you simply walk up, open the door and get in, using Bluetooth instead of NFC.

    Both solutions offer a backup key card you can slip in your wallet (or pocket), in the event your phone went flat, was lost, or stolen.

    Something Apple’s brief segment with BMW didn’t mention, was that this only works on BMW vehicles with Automatic transmission.

    Apple says they want this technology to work with any car (they mean any new car), so they’re apparently working with industry standards groups to make that happen.

    This is one of those things that is quickly becoming an industry trend and a direction that I love. Anything that reduces that regular checklist of things before leaving home is a great step forward.

    Check out the video below for the full segment from Apple’s WWDC keynote.

    Jason Cartwright
    Jason Cartwright
    Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021

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