Car Keys: A New Feature That Lets You Unlock a Car With Your iPhone or Apple Watch

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Apr 12, 2001
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Apple's iPhones and Apple Watches have supported NFC for some time now, and now those NFC capabilities can be used to allow Apple users to lock, unlock, and start compatible NFC-enabled vehicles using the iPhone or Apple Watch in lieu of a physical key.


Apple calls this feature "Car Keys" and this guide covers everything we know about how Car Keys works.

What is Car Keys?

Car Keys is a digital protocol that lets an iPhone or Apple Watch with NFC capabilities unlock, lock, start, and otherwise control an NFC-capable vehicle.

Cars do not have NFC functionality by default, so this is a feature that needs to be implemented by automobile manufacturers much like CarPlay.

What can be done with Car Keys may vary by car manufacturer, but at a minimum, Car Keys can be used to unlock your car, lock your car, and start your car, which are the features available with a physical key.

There are also features for sharing digital keys and restricting access for some digital keys, so you can limit the maximum speeds for a teenager, for example.

Car Keys works through an NFC-based Digital Key 2.0 specification that's developed by the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), which Apple is a member of. The Digital Key 2.0 specification establishes a secure connection between mobile devices and vehicles over NFC.

How does Car Keys work?

Many newer cars these days have key fobs that unlock and start a car just via proximity, and Car Keys is a lot like that. Car Keys is a digital version of a car key that's stored inside the Wallet app.

Unlocking (or locking) a vehicle with Car Keys will involve holding an Apple Watch or iPhone near an NFC reader located inside the car. When the NFC reader detects the digital key stored in the iPhone or Apple Watch, the locking mechanism in the car will activate.

Apple says that you can unlock a car simply by tapping a door handle with an iPhone or Apple Watch.

The iPhone will authenticate the unlocking action with Face ID or Touch ID to verify, though there is an Express Mode that eliminates the need to authenticate, allowing for a faster vehicle unlocking process.

Starting a compatible car requires placing the iPhone on a reader or wireless charger located within the car.

How is Car Keys set up?

Car Keys setup entails placing an iPhone on top of an NFC reader located inside the vehicle, and the initial pairing process could take several minutes to complete.

A pairing code provided by the car manufacturer will need to be entered, though some setup processes could involve downloading an app from the carmaker. Instructions found in iOS:
Place this iPhone on top of the NFC reader in your car. Pairing process may take several minutes, do not remove it from the reader until pairing is done.

Enter the Car Keys code provided by your car dealer or connect using the [Vehicle Brand's] app.
What do Car Keys look like in the Wallet app?

Car Keys look like a standard card in the Wallet app. When you tap on the card, it provides vehicle info like model number and issuing automaker.

A screenshot pulled from iOS 13 depicting the Car Keys interface​


There's also a toggle to activate Express Mode (unlocking without biometric authentication), or sharing a key with other people with a few options for access.

Can I share my Car Keys with others?

Yes. There is an option to send a digital Car Key to unlock your car to others using the Messages app. This is useful for valet parking, sharing vehicle access with a spouse or a friend, getting a repair, and other similar situations.

Different levels of access can be provided, so you can do things like provide full unlocking/driving access or more restricted access, such as allowing someone to unlock a car but not start it. Access can be permanent or temporary.

For younger drivers, there are limits for acceleration, top speed, traction control, and stereo volume.

In the Messages app, you can send a digital Car Key much like you can send Apple Cash, with Car Keys able to be shared in single person chats but not group conversations.

A person who has a digital Car Key to your car is able to use their iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock and/or start the car just like the car owner can do.

Do Car Keys work automatically?

No. Car Keys only work in vehicles that have NFC capabilities, and car manufacturers need to implement NFC and Car Keys support into their vehicles.

Apple is partnering with automakers and Car Keys may be a factory-installed option that's limited to newer car models. As with CarPlay, though, it's possible there could be some aftermarket options for installing an NFC reader connected to the car locks and engine.

Which cars support Car Keys?

Apple's first partner announced at WWDC is BMW. BMW already supports locking and unlocking a vehicle and starting the engine with the BMW Digital Key in the BMW Connected app, and plans to bring it to other platforms as well. BMW is adding support for Car Keys to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, X5, X6, X7, X5M, X6M and Z4 models manufactured after July 1, 2020.



Do Car Keys work if my iPhone's battery dies?

Yes. Car Keys is based on NFC, and the feature continues to operate even when an iPhone or Apple Watch battery is low or recently died as there is a low-power mode included. It may not always be possible to unlock a car with a dead iPhone, however, depending on how long it's been since the iPhone died and whether all of the power reserves have been exhausted.

Apple says power reserve lasts for about five hours beyond the point your iPhone needs to be recharged, although using the NFC functionality while on power reserve decreases that time.

Does Apple know when I lock and unlock my car with Car Keys?

No. Apple in iOS 13.5.1 released a Car Keys privacy policy that gave some insight into Car Keys' built-in privacy. During setup, the one-time redemption token that must be entered to pair a vehicle with the Wallet app is sent along with information about a user's Apple account, device, and location at the time of setup for fraud prevention purposes.

A unique device identifier is sent to the vehicle manufacturer to set up Car Keys. The identifier is unique for each manufacturer for privacy protection purposes. Apple says that car makers can connect the device identifier with other information it has about you, based on the manufacturer's privacy policy.

Likewise, while Apple does not retain information on vehicle usage (such as when a Car Keys is used to lock or unlock a car), a vehicle manufacturer may collect this kind of usage information according to user agreements established with the manufacturer.

When will Car Keys launch?

The first vehicles with Car Keys support are BMW models manufactured after July 1, 2020, and the feature requires iOS 13.6 or watchOS 6.2.8.

There's no word yet on when other manufacturers will be adding support for Car Keys.

Future Car Keys Capabilities

While the Digital Key 2.0 Specification was released in May 2020, the Car Connectivity Consortium is working on a Digital Key 3.0 specification based on Bluetooth LE and Ultra Wideband that would allow for passive, location-aware keyless access.

With a feature that works over Bluetooth and Ultra Wideband over NFC, the iPhone would be able to be left in a pocket and would still unlock or start a vehicle without direct NFC contact and authentication. Apple's iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max feature Ultra Wideband support and would be compatible with this functionality.

Car Keys Rumors and Coverage

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Article Link: Car Keys: A New Feature That Lets You Unlock a Car With Your iPhone or Apple Watch
 
Last edited:

calzon65

macrumors 6502a
Jul 16, 2008
895
3,151
Even though I have keyless entry, this is still a nice feature to have. I'm glad they added it.

Remote start, which is know is car manufacturer dependent, would be a nice addition I would use.
 

anson42

macrumors 6502a
Mar 13, 2014
519
421
Oakland, CA
There is much value add over a simple key fob and while I will likely not make use of most of the scenarios, I certainly appreciate that they are possible.

Express mode seems to be little more than what a key fob provides today. It would be interesting to see if messaging access to your car allows the recipient to use Express Mode or not or if that mode matches what your Express Mode setting is.

I do like that car access can be secured via Touch ID or Face ID. That is an obvious value add over a key fob that I would use. For most of my use cases, I should be able to just leave the key fob at home. I do wonder though, if security can get in the way of express access in an emergency/safety situation.
 

Williesleg

macrumors 6502
Oct 28, 2014
413
727
NY, NY
I've got a Tesla and can tell you their Android app is phenomenal! It's way beyond what a "key" does. Sure, it unlocks the car, but it also lets me control the car, see where the car is (including orientation), real-time, and it integrates with my Power Wall. I could care less about another proprietary Apple thing snooping on me.
 

wood1208

macrumors regular
Aug 30, 2015
104
62
This feature can become very valuable when car key or fob is misplaced but iPhone is in your hand.
 

anson42

macrumors 6502a
Mar 13, 2014
519
421
Oakland, CA
so instead of just reaching for my door handle I have to unlock my phone.. hard pass.
Well, Express Mode would allow you to bypass security and would just allow you to carry just the phone and no key fob. That would seem to be a win right there. I think that's how I would use this feature at first while deciding when it might be useful to have security enabled.
 

kmm333

macrumors newbie
Dec 6, 2016
23
56
I've got a Tesla and can tell you their Android app is phenomenal! It's way beyond what a "key" does. Sure, it unlocks the car, but it also lets me control the car, see where the car is (including orientation), real-time, and it integrates with my Power Wall. I could care less about another proprietary Apple thing snooping on me.
You use an Android and are worried about Apple snooping??

Also, CarPlay allows you to unlock your car even if your phone is dead, which isn’t otherwise possible. Not sure if Tesla ever updated their app, but previously you also could not unlock your car if in an area without cell service.
 

B-Dizzy

macrumors newbie
Jan 29, 2008
22
10
Dear Toyota,

I know you're always late to the game, but please put this in next years 4Runner. We are so close to a no wallet, no keys world.
 

jman240

macrumors 6502a
May 26, 2009
736
81
Anyone else notice that the screen shot says “truck access” when the description says trunk.
 
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rjohnstone

macrumors 68040
Dec 28, 2007
3,580
3,665
PHX, AZ.
“can Tesla implement this on their current vehicles over a software update?” would be a common question
Why would they? They've had this capability for years. They have an NFC reader on the exterior for keycard use or low power BT connection to unlock and start from your phone.
 
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