BMW and Apple team up to develop iPhone CarKey to unlock and start your car

Published: 25 March 2020

► All about forthcoming Apple CarKey
► BMW partnering Apple on virtual key
► Likely on iPhone 11 onwards, iOS 14

BMW is working with Apple to develop a new feature dubbed CarKey to let owners use an iPhone to unlock and start their car. And rather than doing it through an app and tapping a button on screen, they’ll be able to leave it undisturbed in their pocket or handbag, according to evidence unearthed in early iOS 14 code.

Apple fanboy site 9to5Mac first reported on the details and expects BMW to pioneer the service; the Bavarian car maker was also the first car brand to launch wireless Apple CarPlay and it issued a non-denial when asked directly by the website's reporters.

Sounds like the physical car key's days are numbered...

BMW car reviews

What will Apple CarKey do?

Quite simply, it is expected to let owners replace their key fob with a phone, unlocking, locking and starting the car hands-free. It is also likely to sync with Apple CarPlay automatically (and wirelessly) and act as your media hub onboard more seamlessly than ever before.

BMW is a high-profile member of the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which is working to create an industry standard on new digital key features between vehicles and connected devices. Munich issued this statement: ‘The BMW Group took a leading role in the seamless integration of smart devices and the customers’ digital ecosystem in the early stages. 

‘Providing customers with simple, connected and “keyless” access to their vehicles has been a key area of innovation. Today, it is already possible to lock and unlock the vehicle, start the engine and share the key with others using the BMW Digital Key as part of BMW Connected on the smartphone. But this is only the first step in a global technological transformation being shaped and led by the BMW Group.’

Apple CarKey is likely to debut with iOS 14 and on the latest iPhone 11 onwards

Other members of the CCC include Apple, Audi, BMW, Continental, Denso, GM, Hyundai, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Samsung and VW, so you can expect similar services across devices and brands.

Wireless Apple CarPlay: an explainer

How will Apple’s new CarKey service work?

All the evidence from the CCC suggests that Digital Key v3.0 will harness Near Field Communication (NFC), the same tech that lets you make contactless payments or tap into the London Underground using your phone.

Using NFC means there should be decent interoperability between manufacturers and the consortium is understood to be using passive, location-aware keyless access, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) so owners can leave their phone in a pocket and still operate the car’s entry systems. It is designed to be exceptionally difficult to hack, to ensure security and safety.

This tech spec means that CarKey is likely to debut on the latest iPhone models, which ship with the iPhone 11 family. They use UWB to make AirDrop better and will soon power something Apple’s developing called AirTag for hyper-local device tracking. 

Looks like your smartphone will soon be even more integrated into the digital life of your vehicle in the years ahead.

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet