Pocket-lint is supported by its readers. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

(Pocket-lint) - Apple announced Apple CarKey as part of iOS 13 and 14, with expansion to the system coming in iOS 15 too, as announced at WWDC 2021. The system offers 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 get one?

What is Apple CarKey?

Apple CarKey is a 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 or, in iOS 15, ultra-wideband (UWB).

Like Apple Pay, your digital car key will be securely stored in Apple Wallet.

At the original announcement, Apple said that it would be expanding the functionality to support the Apple U1 chip - that's the UWB module in the iPhone and Watch 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's coming in iOS 15 expected in September 2021.

What's unique about CarKey is that it is Apple taking charge, integrating into Apple Wallet and that's likely to appeal to a lot of car manufacturers and customers alike - with Google planning to offer a comparable system for Android in 2021 too.

How does Apple CarKey work?

In its basic form, Apple CarKey uses NFC to authenticate your device and your car. When the car recognises the phone, it will unlock. You'll have to then drop your phone into the tray to allow it to authenticate again - so that the car knows that device is in the car. You'll then be able to start the car. 

For the new version of Apple CarKey with UWB, you can leave your iPhone in your pocket or bag. You'll be able to unlock and start the car, because UWB provides precise location information, so the car will know where the phone is, and can verify that it's within the vehicle.

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 - there's 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, one of the main supporters of the service, 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.

BMWWhat is Apple CarKey photo 2

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. These models are expected to support the NFC version, but if you want UWB support, you'll need to make sure that the car offers this too. 

At the time of writing, we only know of the BMW iX that's been announced with UWB, but we're expecting many more in the future. It's rumoured that Tesla are looking at UWB too, but whether they'd support the system, we don't know.

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.

In a low power state the UWB side of Apple CarKey might not have the power to work - but the NFC side of things will work with very little battery on your device.

BMWWhat is Apple CarKey photo 3

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 Car Connectivity 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 might 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 confirmed that these features from 2020 with the iOS 14 push - and are expanding in 2021.

The limitation is likely to be the number of cars offering support - especially if you want to use the UWB side of things.

Writing by Chris Hall. Originally published on 25 June 2020.