Apple’s next big app for the iPhone: Starting your car

April 30, 2013

When the Apple iPhone first appeared, its presence flummoxed automakers which typically need a couple of years minimum to adapt to new technology. Today, most automakers offer their own apps for some of their more technologically advanced models, up to Volkswagen designing a special-edition Beetle as an iPhone accessory. But now Apple has its own ideas about what the iPhone could do beyond play music — namely, replacing your key fob for locking and starting.

In a U.S. patent application made public last week titled "Accessing a Vehicle Using Public Devices," Apple engineers described a method for using two iPhones and a vehicle's Bluetooth wireless connection to not only lock and unlock the doors, but start the engine and track the vehicle's movements via GPS. Apple envisions the iPhone becoming far smarter than the typical plastic key; the patent describes ways a user could authorize a second phone over email to act as a key, but limit the car's top speed, or even the hours at which it would turn on.

Another Apple patent uncovered at the same time by AppleInsider revealed a related system that would help iPhone owners find their car in a parking garage using a combination of GPS, WiFi and Bluetooth — but would depend on parking decks outfitted with sensors to work.

Both suggest Apple has a growing appetite for making its devices a central part of owning a car. Another Apple site, 9to5Mac, said today that the next version of the company's iOS mobile system software may be designed to handle more in-car navigation and services, with automotive upgrades to Maps and Siri. Several automakers have said they would integrate Siri's services into their vehicles, but those efforts have been slow to deploy — thanks again to the long lead time automakers need to change software and hardware.

Apple's interest in getting behind the wheel may stem from increasing safety concerns about drivers using devices on the road. Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released voluntary guidelines for automakers on how they should design in-car entertainment and information displays — but there's no federal agency that has a clear role for cellphones used by drivers, leaving 10 states to bar any hand-held cellphone use while driving. Such laws would be harder to pass if you can't even start the car without your iPhone.