Apple’s Digital Car Key Patent Hints at Additions to the Walled Garden

Apple never wants you to lose your keys again. The company filed two patents for digital car key pairing.

Photo by smoothgroover22 under CC BY-SA 2.0

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Apple wants to make sure you never lose your keys again. 

The company filed two patent applications related to digital keys for vehicles: one relating to automatic vehicle key pairing and another related to group sharing of a “secure digital car key.” The patents could give hints at what’s down the road for the company’s rumored Apple Car. 

As the title for the automatic key pairing patent implies, a user would be able to either automatically or semi-automatically pair their phone to their vehicle to use it as a digital key using a wireless communication protocol such as Bluetooth, CarPlay or Android Auto protocol. 

This automatic pairing is based on a few conditions, including proper software upgrades, having an existing account, and “proof of ownership” of the vehicle. Apple noted that it can be “complicated and time-consuming to configure electronic devices so that their capabilities can be used by an application,” and that its invention aims to ease that burden by taking that step out of the process entirely. 

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

As for the second patent, Apple wants to let users share a car without needing to copy their keys. The owner of the car is allowed to send an invitation to other users that includes an “instance of the digital car key.” This system may include a “predefined maximum” on the number of digital keys that the owner can hand out.

Shared digital car keys may come with different privileges than that of the original owner, such as the ability to control certain features, time interval in which the digital car key is valid, and “operating constraints” on certain features or the vehicle itself. 

This allows a user to share a digital car key with other individuals, such as “a friend, a valet, a towing service or a mechanic,” in ways that aren’t “cumbersome and inconvenient.”  

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

According to its patent activity, Apple has been hard at work on Project Titan, its Apple Car research project, for years now. The company has filed for hundreds of patents related to components of the vehicle, including windows, seats and suspensions,  security systems and autonomous capabilities and a “user tracking” seat headrest for better audio control.

While there’s been no word on an official debut from Apple, the company reportedly aims to launch the vehicle by 2026, and plans to price it at less than $100,000. This tech, however, could make a debut before an Apple car even hits the road through licensing deals, said Bob Bilbruck, CEO of consulting firm Captjur

Apple CarPlay is already deployed into hundreds of different models of vehicles. If the company wants to test out its key systems, and make extra cash in the process, licensing it similarly could be a possible avenue, said Bilbruck. (Whether Apple implements these digital keys in its own vehicle or others, let’s hope they figure out what to do if a user doesn’t have cell service.)

But this tech also points to a similar notion that we’ve seen come up in several other Apple patents: the goal to create a connected ecosystem of devices that cover every facet of your life, whether it be your entertainment, work, health, home or transportation, Bilbruck said. Your phone is simply the “central brain for any other device” within its walled garden. 

And Apple has some leeway to take big swings with new products, he added. The company has a dedicated user base and topped analysts earnings expectations in the recent quarter, despite sales dropping for the third straight quarter. Even if an Apple-branded car doesn’t live up to the hype, “Worst case scenario, all those patents, all that technology, they have it and can license it to every automaker across the world and still make money,” he said. 

“It’s like jumping on the trampoline,” he said. “Apple might miss and fall off, but they’re not going to get hurt too much. It’s not like jumping off a cliff.”