Unlocking a car has always seemed like something so simple that we've largely ignored the changes that have happened over the years. From pin tumblers to wafer-based locks, transponders, and eventually passive entry systems, the evolution of how we've gained access to our cars has changed a lot over the years. Now, a patent published by Apple shows that it wants the world to move even further into the future by unlocking and starting their cars with their phones and faces.
Despite being published recently, this concept isn't new by any means. When it was when first filed by Apple in 2017, the idea was fresh in the heads of many automakers as part of their app-based suite of connected features. Today, starting your car with your phone or bodily feature is fairly commonplace. Ford allows its owners to use the Sync ecosystem to remotely start their vehicles and Tesla's Model 3 allows for a smartphone to unlock its doors. Hyundai's newest bio-tech even allows owners to start their vehicle with just a fingerprint.
The difference in Apple's approach is likely that it would make this particular feature an integral part of the phone's operating system rather than part of a proprietary app. Language in the patent is fairly broad, however, it describes using sensors and imaging devices to remotely authenticate a user from a "mobile computing device" in order to unlock a vehicle as it was approached. This could indicate an intended use of Face ID or other biometric means using an iPhone.
Don't have an iPhone? No problem; the patent doesn't just stop at phones. The intellectual property continues to describe a method in which a Face ID-like system could be integrated into the exterior of a vehicle in order to perform similar facial recognition tasks and identify a driver.
Furthermore, Apple's patent also suggests the use of multiple driver profiles depending on which phone or individual is seen approaching the vehicle. Things like seat positioning, climate control, radio presets, and other memory-programmable devices are all suggested personalizations that could be utilized by an automaker using this technology. Apple even describes sharing out virtual keys for valets or to access to only certain parts of the vehicle (like a trunk or glove box), perfect for couriers using Amazon's latest delivery method.
A push for smartphone-based authentication is an additional security layer over the convenience of modern passive-entry keys. Unlike most proximity-based entry systems, Apple claims that its invention would not be susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks which are exploited by thieves to gain entry to vehicles and even drive them away without ever touching a key.
The usefulness of Apple's patent doesn't just end with vehicle entry. Apple also wants to make use of proximity-based geofencing to promote the purchasing of goods and services. For example, the vehicle could detect if it was in range of a payment gateway for an electric vehicle charger in order to pay for electricity, or perhaps a Grande Caramel Macchiato from a Starbucks drive-through.
If and where this technology will be used is still a mystery. One could speculate that it could be seen in a future road-going Apple vehicle, however, the future of that particular project is relatively unknown. Recently, the tech giant slashed 200 or more jobs from its autonomous driving division Project Titan which, in a secret closed-door project, doesn't reveal much. Should the technology actually make it into a consumer-facing project, a whole new world of connected cars could further reshape the way we think about mobility as a whole.