Back at WWDC 2020, Apple announced a new feature for the iPhone related to cars: digital car keys. The feature supports a limited number of BMW vehicles, with other manufacturers reportedly coming soon, and allows users with compatible vehicles to use their iPhone as the key to both unlock their car and turn it on. The digital car key can also be shared with other people and can even add restrictions on how they use your car.
Here's what you need to know about digital car keys on iPhone.
Digital car keys?
Yep. Starting with iOS 13.6 and continuing with iOS 14 and newer, you can add digital car keys into the Wallet app on your iPhone that you can use instead of your car's physical key.
The feature launched with compatibility for a small set of BMW cars, with a few more vehicles being added since then. It allows you to unlock and turn on your car without having the physical key that came with your car on you, assuming your vehicle supports that functionality.
How do digital car keys work?
Your digital car key can be added to the Wallet app on your iPhone by following the instructions provided by your car's manufacturer. When it's added to Wallet, the key's security information is stored in the Secure Element on your iPhone's system-on-a-chip, just like your debit and credit card information, so it remains secure.
When you want to unlock your car, you just tap your iPhone to your car's door handle like you would an Apple Pay terminal. Vehicles with digital car key support use NFC to sense a nearby device. When your device is recognized and verified by the car, the doors unlock.
Once you're in the car, you'll place your iPhone on a reader or an included wireless charging pad, which will authorize you to start the car.
In a 2021 update, Apple and the rest of the Car Connectivity Consortium (the folks behind the underlying technology for digital car keys) announced its Digital Key Release 3.0 specification, which includes support for Bluetooth LE and Ultra Wideband technology — the same tech found in Apple's U1 chip in the newest iPhone models.
The updated spec will allow the vehicle to detect your iPhone or Apple Watch's proximity much more accurately, meaning you no longer need to get your device within NFC-sensing distance to unlock the door.
So, do I need to take my phone out of my pocket or bag to use digital car keys?
Right now, that's correct. Since digital car keys currently function using NFC, you need to tap your device to your car door handle to unlock it.
When iOS 15 launches later this year, it will include support for Bluetooth LE and Ultra Wideband for digital car keys meaning that the user no longer has to tap the phone to the door handle to unlock the vehicle. However, it's worth noting that the car also has to be compatible. The only vehicle that is confirmed to support this feature is the upcoming BMW iX which goes on sale in late 2021.
What about sharing car keys?
You can absolutely share your digital car keys. Just tap on the car key in Wallet, then tap the ••• button in the upper-right corner of the screen. Tap the Invite button, then choose who you want to invite.
You can give a person unrestricted access to unlock and drive your car, or you can set the shared key to Restricted Driving mode that lets you set restrictions that limit specific capabilities of the car.
Car keys are shared over iMessage and appear as rich content in a message thread with the people you're sharing them with. After you've shared a car key, you can revoke access to it at any time.
What kind of restrictions can you place on a shared car key?
You can set up a restricted car key to limit multiple aspects of driving your car. For instance, you can set acceleration limits, top speed limits, and even traction control. You can also set a maximum volume on the car stereo to ensure minimal distraction.
All this sounds great, but what if my iPhone battery dies?
While the battery life is often a concern on iPhones, completely draining your iPhone's battery doesn't necessarily mean that you lose your car key, too. This is because of power reserve, which enables your digital car key to work for up to five hours after your iPhone's battery is drained for regular use.
Are car keys in Wallet only supported on iPhone?
No! If you have an Apple Watch Series 5 or newer, you'll be able to unlock your car with a tap of your wrist rather than your iPhone.
Additionally, Apple is working with the Car Connectivity Consortium on building out standards for digital car keys. This could theoretically make digital car keys shareable between iOS and Android devices, but that seems like it would be a little ways off.
What cars support Apple's digital car keys?
Despite launching in 2020, there still aren't a lot of cars that support Apple's car keys initiative. That will change over time as the technology becomes more widespread, but the automotive industry tends to move a lot more slowly than the tech industry.
Right now, only BMW is making cars with digital car key support. These are the models for which you can use digital car keys:
- 1 Series
- 2 Series
- 3 Series
- 4 Series
- 5 Series
- 6 Series
- 8 Series
- X5 M
- X6 M
Notably, only cars manufactured after July 1, 2020, support digital keys. So if you got a brand new BMW X5 on June 30, 2020, sorry, you're out of luck.
What devices will support digital car keys?
The following iPhone and Apple Watch models support car keys in Wallet:
- iPhone XR
- iPhone XS
- iPhone XS Max
- iPhone 11
- iPhone 11 Pro
- iPhone 11 Pro Max
- iPhone SE (2nd generation)
- iPhone 12
- iPhone 12 mini
- iPhone 12 Pro
- iPhone 12 Pro Max
- Apple Watch Series 5
- Apple Watch Series 6
When exactly will digital car keys be available?
If you have a compatible car, you can use digital car keys on your iPhone or Apple Watch right now, assuming you've updated to iOS 13.6 or later.
Updated July 2021: Updated for the most recent version of iOS 14.
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Adam Oram is a Senior Writer at iMore. He studied Media at Newcastle University and has been writing about technology since 2013. He previously worked as an Apple Genius and as a Deals Editor at Thrifter. His spare time is spent watching football (both kinds), playing Pokémon games, and eating vegan food. Follow him on Twitter at @adamoram.