BMW Digital Key Plus in the test – UWB turns smartphone into a fully-fledged car key

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A year ago, BMW was the first to support the digital car key under iOS with the Digital Key (test). With the iX and i4, BMW is introducing the Digital Key Plus with support for ultra-broadband (UWB). The new implementation is much more convenient and turns the smartphone into a fully-fledged car key for the first time.

The smartphone becomes a car key – even offline

The smartphone can already replace many everyday objects, such as the printed flight ticket, the payment card or, last but not least, the vaccination certificate. Since iOS 13.6 and iOS 14, car keys can also be stored in the wallet app in the Apple ecosystem. Another object of everyday life is about to be replaced by the omnipresent everyday companion smartphone in digital form.

Apps that can be used to control vehicle functions via an active Internet connection have been around for a long time. Apart from the initial setup, the new approach completely dispenses with an internet connection between smartphone and vehicle; the smartphone also completely replaces the vehicle key offline.

A year ago with restrictions

A year ago, ComputerBase had the opportunity to test the BMW Digital Key in its first implementation on iPhone and Apple Watch in connection with an appropriately equipped 320d xDrive. The required technology was built into this vehicle, which roughly summarized the NFC interface in the driver’s door and another interface in the wireless charging cradle of the center console.

The CCC Specification 2.0 didn’t produce much

The digital key of the first generation was technically and well implemented in the area of ​​security, was easy to set up, worked flawlessly and was, to a certain extent, a successful start to the digitization of the car key. Apple and BMW did not cook their own soup in the implementation, but (as members) adhered to the Specification 2.0 of the Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC), the other well-known participants counts.

The first generation Digital Key was not a full replacement last year The first generation Digital Key was not a full replacement last year

As reliably as the first implementation worked and brought practical features such as sharing keys via iMessage, the range of functions was still limited compared to the physical car key. For each unlocking and locking, the smartphone had to be held at the NFC interface in the handle of the driver’s door and to start the engine it was required that the smartphone was in the charging cradle. The latter function was practically unusable in everyday life, especially when using the Apple Watch as a car key, because the smartwatch actually had to be pulled out every time the engine was started.

UWB is available from iPhone 11 and Apple Watch 6

With iOS 15 and watchOS 8 at Apple and the iX and i4 at BMW, however, specification 3.0 of the CCC is now arriving, which also provides for the use of ultra-broadband (UWB) and additional functions. ComputerBase had the opportunity to subject the new Digital Key Plus to an initial test using an iX before it was launched on the market at the end of the year. The U1 chip for UWB has been used in Apple devices since the iPhone 11 and the Apple Watch Series 6.

A separate article provides all details about UWB

Technical details on the implementation of UWB can be found in a separate article on the topic, which the editors prepared in June as part of the Apple WWDC. The linked article explains in detail what developers and car manufacturers have to consider during implementation and how individual steps work behind the scenes. This report here is about practical experiences with the new generation compared to the first digital key.

Technical details on UWB are provided in a separate article Technical details on UWB are provided in a separate article (Image: Apple)

Digital Key Plus with UWB makes everything better

The new Digital Key Plus with UWB in the BMW iX (and i4) solves all sorts of restrictions that still existed with the first generation in one fell swoop. First of all, the smartphone can now always remain in your pocket, as thanks to UWB it no longer has to be held in the door via an NFC interface. For the first time, the smartphone is a fully-fledged alternative to the “Keyless Go” of the physical car key. If the digital car key is stored on an Apple Watch Series 6 (test) or newer, this process now also works one-to-one with the smartwatch.

Start the car without any intermediate steps

The same applies to starting the ignition, where it is no longer required that the smartphone or (particularly cumbersome) the smartwatch must be placed in the wireless charging cradle with NFC. The devices can remain in your trouser pocket, other pocket or on your wrist and the car can simply be started, just as you are used to with a physical key. In contrast to the original Digital Key, the technology remains inconspicuous in the background and simply works without the need for annoying manual intermediate steps.

Keyless Go can be deactivated

The fact that “Keyless Go” now also works with the smartphone is a great gain in convenience. However, the function is purely optional and can be deactivated in the settings of the wallet app. The corresponding option can be found in the details of the key card under “Passive entry” and enables the car to be unlocked and started as soon as the iPhone is in the inner UWB zone or in the car or leaves it and the inner zone again. If the feature is deactivated, the car must be opened manually using a button below the key card, as is also demonstrated in the video. When the distance to the car is still several meters, the corresponding button changes from greyed out “Not available” to white with the current locking status of the vehicle: “Locked” or “Unlocked”.

  • Passive entry is purely optional and can be deactivated

    Passive entry is purely optional and can be deactivated

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    The trunk can now also be opened

    With the passive entry of the Digital Key Plus, all four doors and the trunk of the iX can be opened after only the driver’s door was equipped with an interface for the smartphone with the first digital key. After successful contact, the entire car could be unlocked with the first digital key.

    A second button automatically opens the trunk. This function did not exist at all with the first generation of digital keys. Instead, the trunk lid always had to be opened manually after the car was unlocked using the smartphone. At this point there is also parity to the physical car key. For security reasons, however, it is not possible to close it using the smartphone; instead, the corresponding button at the bottom of the trunk lid must be pressed.

    Conclusion

    The BMW Digital Key Plus with UWB support under iOS 15 is exactly what people had hoped for from the first generation: a full-fledged alternative to the physical car key. Important functions such as locking and unlocking remotely, keyless go for starting without an intermediate step, as the smartphone no longer has to be placed in the charging cradle, and opening the trunk directly in the wallet app lead to a significant gain in convenience. With the digital key of the first generation, BMW, Apple and users keen to experiment were able to gain their first experience. The second generation, alias Digital Key Plus, is the first solution for the masses, as previous restrictions no longer exist.

    BMW also seems to see that the smartphone will actually replace the old physical car key in more and more situations and that you can safely leave it at home without having to forego features. For the test drive with the iX, they were explicitly asked to test the new Digital Key Plus, but somewhat surprisingly, the editors were no longer given a physical key as a backup. And with the new generation including UWB, that is actually no longer necessary.

    ComputerBase received information about this item from BMW during an event organized by the manufacturer in Berchtesgaden under NDA. The costs for arrival, departure and an overnight stay in a hotel were borne by BMW. There was no influence on the part of the manufacturer or an obligation to report.

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