Apple's iPhones and Apple Watches have supported NFC for some time now, and in the future, those NFC capabilities will 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 upcoming feature "CarKey" and this guide covers everything we know about how CarKey will work once it's released.
What is CarKey?
CarKey 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 CarKey may vary by car manufacturer, but at a minimum, it seems to be able to unlock your car, lock your car, and start your car, which are the features available with a physical key.
CarKey will work 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 CarKey work?
Many newer cars these days have key fobs that unlock and start a car just via proximity, and CarKey is a lot like that. CarKey is a digital version of a car key that's stored inside the Wallet app.
Unlocking (or locking) a vehicle with CarKey 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.
The iPhone will authenticate the unlocking action with Face ID or Touch ID to verify, though iOS 13 code suggests there's an Express Mode that will eliminate the need to authenticate, allowing for a faster vehicle unlocking process. From text found in iOS 13:
To use CarKey, hold iPhone or Apple Watch to reader. It will work automatically, without requiring Face ID. You can change express mode settings in Wallet.
How is CarKey set up?
Code in iOS 13 includes details on how CarKey's setup will work. CarKey users will need to put the iPhone on top of an NFC reader located inside the vehicle, and the 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 CarKey code provided by your car dealer or connect using the [Vehicle Brand's] app.
What does CarKey look like in the Wallet app?
CarKey will look like a standard card in the Wallet app. When you tap on the card, it will provide vehicle info like model number and issuing automaker.
A screenshot pulled from iOS 13 depicting the CarKey interface
There will also be 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 CarKey with others?
Yes. There will be an option to send a digital CarKey to unlock your car to others using the Messages app. This will be 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. From text found in iOS:
[Vehicle Owner] invited you to use their [Vehicle Model] with unlock & drive access. This allows you to use your iPhone and Apple Watch to unlock/lock the car, start the engine and drive.
There are three levels of access: Unlocking the vehicle, unlocking the vehicle and driving it, or unlocking the trunk only.
In the Messages app, you can send a digital CarKey much like you can send Apple Cash. CarKey keys can be shared in individual conversations, but not group conversations.
CarKey is not available in group conversations. You can send CarKey in conversations with an individual.
A person who has a digital CarKey to your car will be able to use their iPhone or Apple Watch to unlock and/or start the car just like the car owner can do.
Will CarKey work automatically?
No. CarKey will only work in vehicles that have NFC capabilities, and car manufacturers need to implement NFC and CarKey support into their vehicles.
Apple is partnering with automakers and CarKey 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.
Screenshots found in iOS suggest that one of Apple's first partners will be 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.
Will CarKey work if my iPhone's battery dies?
Yes. CarKey is based on NFC, and it will continue 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.
With the similar Express transit functionality that also works over NFC, 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 will decrease that time.
Does Apple know when I lock and unlock my car with CarKey?
Likewise, while Apple does not retain information on vehicle usage (such as when a CarKey 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 CarKey launch?
There's no word yet on when CarKey will launch. Signs of CarKey have been found in multiple versions of iOS 13, so it's definitely something that Apple is actively developing and refining.
With iOS 14 being previewed in June and launched in the fall, there's a chance that CarKey is designed to be an iOS 14 feature, and it's possible Apple will unveil it at WWDC. CarKey is dependent on car makers, though, so Apple may need to wait until partnerships have been established.
Future CarKey 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.