Future Car Key breathalyzer feature could refuse to unlock your car if you’re drunk

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Drunk driving kills one person every 52 minutes in the United States, which is why Apple is looking into a Vehicle Key breathalyzer function that would refuse to unlock your car if you were above the legal alcohol limit.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued an Apple patent application for this capability today…

Car Key

We first exclusively discovered Apple’s Car Key feature back in early 2020, before it was officially announced later the same year.

CarKey uses NFC technology to communicate with the car, enabling devices to function as a true car key. Users must place the iPhone on top of the NFC reader in the car during the initial process, and then CarKey will be available in the Wallet app. [Once configured], CarKey works automatically without the user having to unlock the phone or open any app.

It is necessary to have an iPhone XR or later, as well as an Apple Watch Series 5 or later.

The technology was originally exclusive to select BMW models, but other automakers are gradually adopting it. More information may be found here.

Drunk driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) outlines the severity of the problem.

Every day, about 28 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes — that’s one person every 52 minutes. In 2019, these deaths reached the lowest percentage since 1982 when NHTSA started reporting alcohol data — but still 10,142 people lost their lives. These deaths were all preventable […]

Approximately one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in the United States involve drunk drivers (with BACs of .08 g/dL or higher).

The NHTSA recommends a five-point plan to US drivers:

  1. Plan your safe ride home before you start the party, choose a non-drinking friend as a designated driver.
  2. If someone you know has been drinking, do not let that person get behind the wheel. Take their keys and help them arrange a sober ride home. 
  3. If you drink, do not drive for any reason. Call a taxi, a ride-hailing service, or a sober friend. 
  4. If you’re hosting a party where alcohol will be served, make sure all guests leave with a sober driver.
  5. Always wear your seat belt — it’s your best defense against impaired drivers.

Car Key breathalyzer patent application

According to Apple’s patent filing, the Car Key function might be extended to need connection with a breathalyzer.

If the reading is too high, Car Key may refuse to unlock the doors or may allow access but restrict the vehicle from going.

In some embodiments, if a user attempts to remove the temporary restriction on the secure credential prior to the predetermined time period lapsing, one or more unlocking criteria must be satisfied before the temporary restriction can be removed. For example, the one or more unlocking criteria can include one or more biometric criteria (e.g., a blood alcohol level below a threshold value). In response to detecting input, electronic device displays notification instructing a user to breathe into a breathalyzer (e.g., a breathalyzer that is in wireless or wired communication with device) […]

Electronic device receives biometric information indicating that the user’s blood alcohol level is 0.00, which falls below the threshold value. Based on the determination that the user’s blood alcohol level satisfies one or more biometric criteria, electronic device displays indication and removes restrictions on the secure credential.

In contrast, electronic device receives biometric information indicating that the user’s blood alcohol level is 0.08, which does not fall below the threshold value. Based on the determination that the user’s blood alcohol level does not satisfy the one or more biometric criteria, electronic device displays indication, and maintains restrictions on the secure credential.

Wireless breathalyzers at low cost have been available for many years — I evaluated a keyfob-sized one in 2014.

In the United States, someone convicted of drunk driving may be obliged to have a breathalyzer installed in their vehicle after serving a driving restriction or jail term, which prevents the vehicle from being started unless the reading is significantly below the legal limit. As Car Key becomes more common, this technology may make it much easy to impose such limitations on all individuals convicted.

We’ll add our standard patent disclaimer: Apple patents a lot of concepts, most of which never make it into products — but I’m hoping this one does.

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