Apple announced a swathe of new software features at WWDC 2020, spanning its full portfolio of devices and laying out some of what you can expect in the near and distant future.

One of those things is support for digital car keys, with the ability to unlock your car using your iPhone or Apple Watch. But what exactly are digital keys, how will they work and when can you expect them to arrive?

What is Apple CarKey?

Apple CarKey will be a new service on Apple devices that supports digital car keys.

That will mean that you can use your iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock your car, using NFC. It's very much like the approach that's taken for Apple Pay, allowing you to use secure digital identification via NFC (near field communication). Like Apple Pay, your digital car keys will be securely stored in Apple Wallet.

You'll just have to drop your iPhone onto the smartphone tray in the car and press start, at which point you'll be able to drive away. You don't have to leave the phone on the tray - it just has to be recognised, you can then slip it back into your pocket.

In the future, Apple says that it will be expanding the functionality to support the Apple U1 chip - that's the ultra-wideband module that's in the iPhone allowing for more detailed spatial awareness - which will mean you don't have to take the key out of your pocket to unlock the car - it will work on proximity.

That does lead us to think that the future Apple Watch 6 might get the U1 chip to support this functionality too, although we doubt you'll be going anywhere without your phone in your pocket.

Apple CarKey will support the Apple Watch, but in its current guise that's designed for unlocking the car only - you'd still have to drop your phone onto the smartphone pad to authenticate and start the car.

What's unique about CarKey is that it's Apple taking charge, integrating into Apple Wallet and that's likely to appeal to a lot of car manufacturers and customers alike.

What else will you be able to do with Apple CarKey?

Without the need for a physical key - just a means for secure digital authentication - allows flexibility in services that can be offered. You can share your key with someone, for example, so if you want to lend someone your car you can grant them access by sending them a digital key.

You can also set limitations or restrictions on that digital key - including things like limiting top speeds, the volume of the stereo or the horse power that's available. BMW says you can have up to five additional users so you can cover the whole family.

Apple says that you'll be able to share keys through iMessage and of course, if you lose your device, you can cancel your key through iCloud so your car is still secure.

BMW

Which cars will support Apple CarKey?

At the time of the announcement, the 2021 BMW 5 Series was announced as the first car to support Apple CarKey. This isn't the first time that BMW and Apple have worked together - BMW was first to support the iPod, as well as the first to offer wireless CarPlay too.

However, the agreement goes a lot further than just the BMW 5 Series, as it includes: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, X5, X6, X7, X5M, X6M and Z4 if manufactured after 1 July 2020, according to BMW. Apple CarKey is going to be available in 45 countries too, so it's a widespread thing.

Don't expect it to be limited to BMW either - many major manufacturers support digital keys and we can expect wider support in the future, as we discuss below.

What if you run out of battery on your iPhone?

That's a potential problem for anyone relying on digital services. BMW has confirmed that you'll have up to 5 hours reserve power for Apple CarKey if the phone should shut down because it's run out of power.

In reality, these types of services for authentication use very little energy so even if your phone is dead, you'll have that 5 hours window when it should still work.

BMW

What is the current situation for digital keys?

You might be thinking that a lot of this has been done before - well it has and it hasn't. Digital car keys are new and exciting, but slowly becoming widespread among the car community. Most modern cars support keyless entry - you just have to have the key in your pocket - and many support keyless starting and driving.

While a number of manufacturers support digital key functions through their own apps, it's important for there to be standardisation. That comes from the Connected Car Consortium (CCC), of which Apple and BMW are board members - alongside General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Samsung and Volkswagen.

Other members of the CCC include the likes of Mercedes, Toyota, Ford and more, so you can expect widespread participation in Apple CarKey in the future.

Some will likely never be included: with Tesla already offering advanced functions through its own app and a firm believer in its own technology, we doubt that Tesla would see the need to be involved, but when companies like Toyota and VW get involved, it's potentially going to be hugely widespread.

The CCC is also looking at the next-gen of digital car keys that uses ultra-wideband technology, with BMW saying that progress in this development is coming along well - which fits with Apple saying that it's expecting to support it in 2021.

When can I get Apple CarKey?

Apple and BMW have confirmed that these features will be available in 2020 and we suspect that means that they will come with the iOS 14 push - which we expect to see around September 2020.

We're not expecting the more advanced ultra-wideband support for another year, but in 2021 there's likely to be more flexibility when it comes to using digital car keys with your Apple device.