Apple yesterday seeded the first beta of iOS 13.4 with several new features, such as iCloud folder sharing, new Memoji stickers, and a redesigned Mail toolbar. While not mentioned in the release notes, the update also includes early signs of an interesting feature that would turn an iPhone or Apple Watch into a car key.
As first reported by 9to5Mac, and confirmed by MacRumors contributor Steve Moser, the iOS 13.4 beta contains strings of code that reference an unreleased “CarKey” framework that would enable an iPhone or Apple Watch to lock or unlock compatible vehicles and start the engine to drive.
The code indicates that “CarKey” would essentially be a digital car key stored in the Wallet app. This would allow you to approach your vehicle, hold your iPhone or Apple Watch near an NFC reader in the vehicle, authenticate with Face ID, and have the vehicle unlock automatically. Similar to Apple Pay for transit, Express Mode would be an option, eliminating the need to authenticate.
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.
To set up CarKey, you will need to place your iPhone on top of the NFC reader in your vehicle, according to the strings. Apple says the process may take several minutes to complete. Then, you will need to enter a pairing code provided by your local dealership, or connect using your vehicle brand’s app.
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.
Enter the CarKey code provided by your car dealer or connect using the [Vehicle Brand’s] app.
Conveniently, it will be possible to share a CarKey with others, giving them full or restricted unlocking and driving capabilities.
[Vehicle Owner] invited you to use their [Vehicle 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.
Apple would be partnering with automakers on this initiative, suggesting that CarKey could become a factory-installed option like CarPlay. The feature would require an NFC-enabled vehicle, so it would likely be limited to newer models. It is unclear when CarKey may begin rolling out, but perhaps it is planned for the public release of iOS 13.4 within the next few months.
Notably, Apple is a member of the Car Connectivity Consortium, or CCC, which recently announced a new NFC-based Digital Key 2.0 specification that it said would be made available by the end of 2019. The CCC said this specification establishes a secure connection between mobile devices and vehicles using NFC, which continues to operate even when a compatible device’s battery is low.
Next, the consortium is developing a Digital Key 3.0 specification based on both Bluetooth LE and Ultra Wideband to enable passive, location-aware keyless access. This would allow you to leave your iPhone in your pocket or backpack when accessing or starting your vehicle. Apple added Ultra Wideband support to its iPhone 11 lineup and promised it would lead to “amazing new capabilities.”
The above evidence coupled with related patents is quite compelling evidence that Apple has big plans for digital car keys.