Apple Car Keys: What is it and is there an Android alternative?

NFC toggle button Android menu
Apple Car Keys was announced at WWDC 2020. For those who don’t know, Car Keys is a new iOS 14 feature that lets you unlock your car using an iPhone.

Credit: Robert Triggs / Android Authority

There isn’t a ton of support for it yet, but the features are actually kind of cool. You can send your car key via the Messages app and you can restrict some car functions with a shared key. It also works offline as it’s based on NFC. Future iterations may even use different wireless connectivity to unlock the car with the phone in your pocket.

Naturally, Android users are likely curious whether there will be an equivalent for the top Android phones. There are plenty of car keys apps already available, Apple’s unique approach is ahead of the competition. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like the Apple Car Keys feature is anything Android users can’t eventually have too.

Opinion: iPhone 6S getting iOS 14 is like the Galaxy S6 getting Android 11. Imagine that.

What is Apple Car Keys doing that makes it special?

A photo of the BMW booth at the Zagreb Auto Show
For starters, Apple’s solution bucks a lot of trends. A lot of smart tech requires the cloud and, therefore, a constant data connection. Apple Car Keys does not need those things. NFC technology is available even while offline so you can unlock your car anywhere, even if an underground garage or other places where a connection is spotty. That already makes it better than some car manufacturer solutions since all of those require server access.

Some other unique features include full Apple Watch support so you don’t even need to take your phone out of your pocket if you have the Watch too. You also don’t need an iOS Car Keys app to make it work — it can either sit in Wallet or just activate as soon as you wave your iPhone over your car’s lock (as long as it has Apple Car Keys compatibility, of course). Finally, Apple has an API for this and isn’t relying on apps or services from car manufacturers. Even Android solutions like the official Tesla app require a third-party app to make it all work.

The only downside is that the number of Apple Car Keys compatible cars will be restricted to a handful of BMW vehicles at launch. Support should improve over time.

Apple’s solution and execution are both extra clean. Everything takes place on or near your person without any cloud access or any special tricks. You just tap your phone or watch to a supported car and boom, the car is unlocked. It’s hard to criticize that on any level. The good news is that this technology probably won’t be restricted solely to Apple.

You can kind of do this with NFC already

NFC is a surprisingly robust platform. You can buy blank NFC stickers and blank NFC tags on Amazon. From there, you get an app like NFC Tools and you’re off to the races. You can toggle various settings, add various bits of information, and even make your own commands with something like Tasker.

The problem is the barrier to entry is rather high. Fiddling around with the tags and NFC apps is a bit of pain if you’ve never done it before. Those with more experience could very easily create a custom NFC car unlocker with this method, but it requires a KeyDuino (an Arduino development board with integrated NFC), knowledge of open source code, and some DIY know-how.

NFC tech in cars is still rather new, but it definitely didn’t start with Apple and it definitely won’t end with Apple.

It’s not really worth it for folks who don’t know this stuff, but the tech is already more accessible. Tesla was among the first to address the problem as you can use NFC to unlock your Tesla via its app. In other words, this tech was coming whether Apple brought it or not. The question is whether or not Android follows suit with OS-level integration or if it’s up to app developers to bring it to all of us. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

NFC is only one option

Car Connectivity Consortium Car Data
Many car makers, including the aforementioned ones above, have apps that let you unlock your phone over a network connection. You can also get third party components that perform more or less the same task, such as MoboKey and Viper SmartStart. Apps and services like those use Bluetooth Low Energy or a mobile data connection over a server to start your car and do all sorts of other things.

Credit: Car Connectivity Consortium

On the low end, you can unlock and remote start your car. The high-end options let you engage climate controls, see the last place you parked, check diagnostics, and, if your vehicle supports it, even leave the parking spot and come find you. The high-end options are a lot more difficult to find and a lot more expensive to install.

Many car makers, including Ford, Chevrolet, and Hyundai (via Blue Link) also have apps that let you unlock your phone over a network connection. However, NFC is definitely the best tech for a manual, offline method. Simply tapping your car in the right spot to open it is a neat trick and it’s easier to pull out a phone than it is your keys half the time. However, with Bluetooth Low Energy especially, we will eventually just get into the car and drive off as long as our phones are on us. That’s not a wild guess either. There are companies working on this technology right now.

The Car Connectivity Consortium

Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key
Enter the Car Connectivity Consortium, a group of auto and technology companies. The goal of the group is to standardize the tech in every car so that everyone gets a similar experience. The group was established back in 2011 with the expressed purpose of using today’s new technology such as NFC, Bluetooth, etc. for use in cars. In fact, its announcement press release mentions NFC specifically.

Credit: Car Connectivity Consortium

The Consortium didn’t spend the last nine years doing nothing. They finalized Digital Key Release 2.0 just this last May — a standardized and secure method for vehicle owners to use their own mobile devices as a digital key specifically via NFC. We’re relatively certain that Apple Car Keys uses Digital Key Release 2.0 because the specs and use are so similar.

It is likely Apple uses a standardized method for Car Keys which means other platforms should get it too.

It’s likely that Android users will get access to this technology eventually because it is a standardization similar to USB-C or the headphone jack. It may not be in the OS for Android users, but definitely in app form at the very minimum. The Consortium already has a website for app developers to integrate OS-agnostic car tech.

The more exciting news is Digital Key Release 3.0 which should include support for multiple connectivity methods such as Bluetooth Low Energy and other connections. It should let you unlock your car without ever touching your smartphone. The two will just wirelessly communicate when you’re close enough to unlock (and potentially even start) the car without your input.

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In other words, the technology won’t stop at NFC and it should easily come to non-Apple devices as well. Between Bluetooth Low Energy and NFC solutions, you may never need a key fob again.

Apple Car Keys is no doubt a game-changer for car owners. It’s just way easier than using your keys unless you have those keyless entry systems. More car manufacturers need to support the tech and, of course, Android needs to as well. However, based on the available information, we see no reason to believe that Android users won’t get something like Car Keys in the next year or two. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

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