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iOS 14 will let you use your iPhone as a car key, starting with BMWs

iOS 14 iPhone digital car key
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Some automakers offer apps for specific models that allow you to use your smartphone as a car key. However, the feature is still generally limited to a small number of vehicles on the road, and it usually requires a specific app from the manufacturer to work.

We've heard rumors for a few weeks now that Apple is looking to introduce a CarKey API within iOS 14, which would enable system-level integration to use your handset as a key for your ride. Now, 9to5Mac is reporting that it's seen code in iOS 14 that not only references the feature, but suggests BMW will be among Apple's first partners to launch it.

When 9to5Mac pressed on BMW to reveal whether or not it was working with Apple, the German automaker declined to confirm or deny the question.

Apple and BMW are both part of the Car Connectivity Consortium — a group of companies working together to standardize virtual key technology across the industry. The group also consists of car makers like Hyundai, General Motors and Volkswagen, as well as tech giants LG and Samsung.

The CCC is working on a third-generation of its key technology, called Digital Key release 3.0. Whereas the previous iteration relied on NFC alone — the same technology used to enable mobile payments at points of sale — Digital Key 3.0 utilizes a combination of ultra-wideband local tracking and Bluetooth low energy for a better experience.

Existing digital key integrations require you to physically hold your device near the car for unlocking. Starting with version 3.0, you won't need to do that; if the handset is on your person as you approach or go to start the vehicle, that will be enough.

The critical point here is that the latest batch of iPhones — the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max — all feature ultra-wideband chips, so they're ready for future digital key technology. (It's also not wild speculation to assume those chips will feature in this fall's iPhone 12, too.) And 9to5Mac reports users will be able to access and manage their digital key through the Wallet app.

Screenshots, ostensibly of pre-release iOS 14 software, embedded in the tweet above, highlight how the Car Key software is expected to look on iPhones. Note the Express Mode option, which could allow you to unlock your car without Face ID or any method of authentication.

To owners of Teslas and other vehicles that already implement some form of digital key tech, Apple's work here might seem like no big deal. However, digital key support at the system level — especially on iPhones — will likely go a great deal further toward establishing the technology and ensuring more automakers come on board. If a car company doesn't need to develop its own app and software to go with a new model, it's much likelier to include digital key support by leaning on Apple's API and work in the space.

The upshot? We expect to see many, many more cars launching with digital keys in the future if iPhones are already set up to work with it. Perhaps Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) online event will explore Car Key in depth later this year, and it'll pop up in iOS 14 betas that emerge between then and the update's expected public release this fall.