Apple Aims to Replace Car Keys with CarKey

By Kurt Stolz on 23 June 2020
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A BMW 5 Series at the BMW Welt in Munich

CUPERTINO—At the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference held Monday, the company best known for its iPod and iPhone devices said it wants the latter to replace the ubiquitous car key.

Apple, which at one point had designs on producing its own cars, now estimates that its CarPlay infotainment system is available in 97% of new vehicles sold in the United States and 80% worldwide. 

Having successfully replaced automaker’s navigation systems and music players, Apple wants to replace the car key, which has grown in size from just a key to a small intelligent device over the past 20 years.

“They’ve been around for over 100 years but they’ve become big, bulky, and ripe for reimagining,” said Craig Federighi, the company’s senior vice president of software engineering, at the event.

Apple will roll out CarKey in the 2021 BMW 5 Series, which will be released in July.

While CarKey, in its first iteration, will mean not having to carry a key, the driver will have to tap the door handle with his iPhone in order to unlock the sedan.  Currently – and since the early 2000s – the BMW 5 Series and other BMWs will unlock when the driver touches the door handle with the key in his pocket or bag.

Apple is using Near Field Communication, known as NFC, a technology which allows devices within an inch or less of each other to exchange data wirelessly.  This is why the iPhone needs to practically touch the door handle.  Apple said it will transition to ultra wideband in the next iteration of CarKey, which will allow the feature to function at greater distances and will permit the driver to leave the iPhone in a bag or pocket. This should be available in 2021.

Emily Schubert, the company’s senior manager of car experience engineering, offered a demonstration at the WWDC.  She tapped the 5er’s door handle with her iPhone and the door unlocked. She then placed the iPhone on the car’s charging pad and was able to start the car using the start/stop button. 

CarKey will allow the driver to share the virtual key with friends via its iMessage messaging app.  Several automakers including Volvo offer a proprietary digital key but so far only Apple CarKey is being built to standards agreed upon by the Car Connectivity consortium, a group that includes major automakers, including BMW, as well as Apple.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)