Tight pants and other Face ID Express Transit fuckups

Express Transit is the best and most natural way of using Apple Pay. It first came to iPhone with Mobile Suica in 2016, expanding incrementally until finally going wide with iOS 15 Wallet. Suica has been around so long in Tokyo that younger generations don’t know anything else, it’s ubiquitous. Used global NFC iPhones and Osaifu Keitai are ubiquitous too so there are a lot more people using Mobile Suica, and complaining about it.

Mobile Suica complaints aren’t a bad thing. All those bad Suica App reviews on the App store and complaints on Twitter mean that people use Mobile Suica enough to download Suica App, register an account, use it, then go online and complain. It’s a gold mine of information, invaluable feedback telling us what trips users up at transit gates, a user base with 15 years of mobile transit experience. Any transit operator looking to implement good mobile transit service would greatly benefit from studying strengths and weaknesses of Mobile Suica, the worlds largest, oldest and most widely used mobile transit card service. Unfortunately nobody bothers to do so.

Tight pants + face masks = Face ID fuckups
As always, most Apple Pay Suica problems boil down to Face ID issues that disable Express Transit. Mobile Suica support even has a dedicated help post it puts out regularly. Face/Touch ID and Express Transit are joined at the hip. When Face/Touch ID is disabled, Express Transit is also disabled, a passcode is required to turn them on again. From the iOS 15 user guide: you must always enter your passcode to unlock your iPhone under the following conditions:

  1. You turn on or restart your iPhone.
  2. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone for more than 48 hours.
  3. You haven’t unlocked your iPhone with the passcode in the last 6.5 days, and you haven’t unlocked it with Face ID or Touch ID in the last 4 hours.
  4. Your iPhone receives a remote lock command.
  5. There are five unsuccessful attempts to unlock your iPhone with Face ID or Touch ID.
  6. An attempt to use Emergency SOS is initiated.
  7. An attempt to view your Medical ID is initiated.

You might think a passcode unlock is always the same, however there are surprisingly different Express Transit results at the gate show in the following video clips.

  • The first video shows Express Transit in normal action when Face ID (or Touch ID) and Express Transit mode are on. This is exactly what Suica users expect at transit gates and store readers. When it doesn’t work like this every single time, they complain.
    The second video shows a passcode request after restarting iPhone (#1), not something that would happen in real world use but I wanted to show the different kinds of passcode requests.
  • The third video is the most common one: the Apple Pay screen appears with a passcode request (#5-five failed Face ID attempts when wearing a face mask), this is exacerbated by Face ID Raise to Wake which is why I recommend that Face ID users turn it off when wearing face masks. There is a similar but separate issue when a user inadvertently pushes the side buttons (#6-emergency SOS • iPhone shut down), this happens more than you might think because side buttons are easily pressed when iPhone is in a tight pants pocket, especially when iPhone is in a case which is pretty much everybody.
  • The last video shows manual Apple Pay card selection and authentication when an Express Transit is not set, this is also how Apple Pay works on open loop transit systems without Express Transit support such as Sydney’s Opal.

An interesting side note about Japanese transit gate reader design UI. The blue light NFC reader hit area not only makes a great big visual target, it tells us the gate is ‘ready and waiting’. Notice how the blue light goes off when the reader is busy with a card transaction, then blinks on again ready and waiting for the next card. Watch the above videos carefully and you’ll notice the blue reader light stays lit with every false read attempt. Only when the correct card is brought up does it blink off and complete the transaction. When there’s a real problem the blue light changes to red.

This is simple, clever and user friendly design as your eyes are naturally focused where your hand is but you don’t see the design anywhere else except the new OMNY system readers. Copying the Japanese gate reader UI design is a smart move by Cubic Transportation Systems and MTA but their LED screen NFC hit area combo design appears to be somewhat fragile. The green ‘GO’ might seem like a nice touch but I suspect it subliminally makes a use wait for it. More feedback isn’t always better. Every millisecond wasted at the transit gate is a bad design choice.


Fixing Face ID
iPhone users in America only became aware of Face ID shortcomings thanks to COVID face mask mandates. Yes Virginia, Face ID sucks with face masks and Express Transit users in New York and London came face to face with issue #5: five successful Face ID attempts disables Face ID and Express Transit. It got so bad that MTA pleaded with Apple to ‘fix Face ID’. Apple dribbled out some Face ID “fixes” that didn’t fix very much.

iOS 13.5 introduced a Face ID with face mask passcode popup tweak that didn’t make passcode entry any easier and certainly didn’t fix Face ID use with a face mask. People quickly forgot about it.

iOS 14.5 introduced Unlock iPhone with Apple Watch that was widely ballyhooed by tech bloggers but real world use was a different story:

I find it fails me too often on the daily commute and in stores, usually at the very moment I need to launch dPOINT or dPay apps at checkout. I also get the feeling that Apple Watch battery life takes a hit too… If it works for you that’s great, but the Unlock with Apple Watch end user experience will be all over the place.

Also telling was that online Face ID/Express Transit complaints continued to grow despite the iOS 14.5 feature. Unlock with Apple Watch is a one trick pony, it unlocks a Face ID iPhone when a mask is detected, nothing more, no Apple Pay, no Face ID fix.

iOS 15.4 introduced Face ID with a mask for iPhone 12 and later. This is the first true fix for using Face ID with face masks, finally doing all the work Face ID does from unlocking iPhone to authenticating Apple Pay and apps. It’s not perfect as it doesn’t fix Face ID for earlier iPhone X-XS-11 models, and there are trade offs as it reduces Face ID security for the convenience of keeping your face mask on. In my experience Face ID with a mask on iPhone 13 Pro is certainly an improvement but slower and less successful than using Face ID without a mask. Face ID with a mask is also somewhat quirky. It doesn’t like strong backlighting, some users report frequent ‘look down’ requests depending on the their type of face and glasses.

Now that Apple has a focused Face ID with face mask roadmap that restores the Face ID Apple Pay experience, we can ignore all that mushy ridiculous Touch ID + Face ID dual biometric iPhone talk. Expect Apple to focus on improving Face ID with a mask performance on legacy Face ID on iPhone 12 and 13 in future iOS updates and delivering phenomenally better Face ID technology in future iPhones.

Timeout: a very long transit card transit

It’s been a year since JR Central’s TOICA network was expanded to more stations making Suica-TOICA-ICOCA cross region commuter passes available for the very first time. Regular transit cards are still stuck with tapping out of one fare region and tapping in at fare region border stations in Atami (Suica~TOICA) and Maibara (TOICA~ICOCA). But even for regular transit cards, crossing IC fare regions is much easier thanks to special IC fare region specific exit gates installed with the TOICA expansion.

Transit YouTuber Wataru Watanuki took the fare region border crossing challenge with a 10 hour trip by regular trains from Tokyo to Osaka using his Suica card. A 556.4 kilometer trip. Try that with a transit card in any other country.

He could have used his Apple Pay Suica but used plastic Suica because it’s easier to get detailed Suica receipt printouts at mobile-unfriendly JR West station kiosks. In his video there are two IC fare region border crossings, one at Atami station from Suica to TOICA and one at Maibara station from TOICA to ICOCA. It’s a leisurely fun train travel video similar to videos that investigate transit IC fare loopholes.

Things would have gone smoothly for Wataru san but he was tripped up by a little known stingy TOICA tap-timeout rule, rumored to be within 3 hours from tap in before the card is invalidated for the trip and has to be reset by a station agent. There is no way to travel from Atami to Maibara by regular train in 3 hours, the shortest travel time is 5 hours 44 minutes, 3 hours barely gets one to Hamamatsu. JR Central supposedly does this to prevent ICOCA card abuse (Really? I suspect they just make it inconvenient so people ditch local trains and ride the Tokaido Shinkansen instead). JR East Suica appears to have much more lax timeout rules. JR West ICOCA limits IC transit on their regular lines to 200 km, though there are some interesting ICOCA loopholes.

Long distance travel with Suica and other IC transit cards isn’t a problem, any regular person would just take the Shinkansen using smartEX or Eki-Net Shinkansen eTickets. Timeout doesn’t apply because the IC card SF balance ‘taps out’ when going through the Shinkansen entrance gate. But the video does point out a long standing weakness of Japanese transit IC fare systems: it’s a hassle for people living in fare region border areas and prevents them from using transit IC cards for local area cross border transit.

One example is the JR Central Minobu line. It does not have transit IC service yet because the line starts at JR East Suica region Kofu station. Suica users from Tokyo can only go as far as Kofu before switching to paper tickets for the Minobu line transfer.

The best thing would be JR East and JR Central cooperating so that IC fare tables work both ways and integrate for cheaper through IC fares instead of 2 separate trips. Most Minobu line stations are unmanned, the trains already equipped with paper ticket fare boxes at the front door exit. Adding a IC card reader is the next logical step and work exactly like buses and some JR West ICOCA equipped train lines do: tap in at the entrance, tap out at the exit. Small improvements would like this would go a long way to solve cross border IC card hassles and make transit easier for local residents. Transit cards only become useful when they integrate with everything from transit to purchases, that in turn, encourages mobile for transit use.

Hidden Assumptions

Jonathan Seybold said it best in his Computer History Museum interview video, many arguments can be easily demolished by pulling out the hidden assumptions. In our attention span challenged social media era it’s all too easy to believe things at face value. Few people invest time and brain energy to analyze and question arguments to find and examine hidden assumptions.

A reader of this blog might come away thinking I am not a fan of open loop transit fare payments and despise EMV contactless and QR Code payment technology. That would be a mistake. I don’t hate them, everything has its place. I simply don’t agree with ubiquitous assumptions that EMV or QR or open loop are cure alls for every transit fare payment situation that they are praised to be…usually because ‘everybody uses’ bank issued contactless payment cards or smartphone payment QR apps. It’s a one size fits all mentality that blinds people from seeing hidden assumptions. It’s very important to see how all the pieces, seen and unseen, fit together. After all, transit companies and their users have to live with transit infrastructure choices for decades.

In a recent twitter thread Reece Martin thought it would be nice if Canada had a nationwide transit card. This is something Japan has had since 2013 when the Transit IC interoperability scheme was put in place that made the major transit IC cards compatible with each other, but they did this without changing the hardware. The various card architectures were left untouched and linked with system updates, a use-the-same-card backend solution. China on the other hand created a national transit card with the China T-Union • PBOC 2.0 standard that replaced all older transit cards with locally branded T-Union cards, a get-a-new-card hardware solution.

A nationwide Canadian transit card is a great idea but as Samual Muransky answered in the same thread, why bother with ‘obsolete’ dedicated transit cards when everybody uses EMV contactless bank cards and EMV is the new standard. Let’s examine some hidden assumptions at play here.

Assumption #1: Everybody has contactless credit/debit cards
The open assumption here that everybody has bank issued credit or debit payment cards is not the case and varies by country, demographics, age, etc. Most people in some countries do, but even so there will always be people who don’t. Transit cards always have the advantage of being available at station kiosks to anyone with cash.

Assumption #2: because of assumption #1 open loop (credit/debit cards) is better than closed loop (dedicated ticketing) for paying transit fare
The hidden assumption is that open loop covers everything but it does not. Specific transit services such as individual commuter passes, discounted fares for disabled/elderly/children are practically impossible to attach and use with bank payment cards. The best that transit systems and payment networks can do with open loop is fare capping or special discounts when applied universally. The age-old pay ‘x’ times and get one free concept. Open loop works best for occasional transit users.

The limitations of open loop on large complex transit systems like Transport for London is easy to see. Despite a long campaign to eliminate the venerable Oyster transit card and migrate users to EMV open loop, TfL threw in the towel and upgraded the Oyster system recently. To date TfL has not offered a digital version of the closed loop Oyster card. In short, dedicated transit cards will always be with us.

Assumption #3: EMV contactless is the NFC standard
The NFC Forum recognized long ago that credit card companies and transit companies have different needs and objectives. To that end the NCF Forum has 2 basic NFC standards, one for contactless payments (NFC A/B but only A is really used) and one for transit (NFC A-B-F). All NFC devices must support NFC A-B-F for NFC Forum certification.

Assumption #4: EMV contactless for transit is safe and secure
There are many hidden assumptions packed into the words ‘safe and secure’: not everybody agrees on what safe is and what level of security is secure. Things also change depending on the situation and the design. I have covered transit gate reader design in many other posts but recap some basics here.

Steve Jobs famously said that designing a product is a package of choices. I have often said that EMV contactless is supermarket checkout payment technology but that’s not a put down, it’s the truth of what EMVCo were aiming for when they grafted NFC-A to their EMV chip for contactless cards.

Because of wide deployment with no direct control, the original EMV contactless spec had a latency window to work reliably even with crappy network installations, and the slow speed has sometimes been cited as a security risk. NFC-A (MIFARE and EMV) transaction speeds are rated for a theoretical 250ms but are usually 500ms on open loop transit gates. Suica is always 200ms, often faster. The speed gap is due to gate reader design, the network lag of centralized processing vs local stored value processing, and the different RF communication distances for NFC-A and NFC-F. JR East presentation slides explain the transaction speed differences.

  • Japanese station gates are designed to be capable of 60 passengers per minute. To do this the conditions are:
    • Processing time of fare transaction has to be within 200ms
    • RF communication distance is 85mm for physical cards and smartphones
  • European station gates are designed to be capable of 30 passengers per minute:
    • The processing time takes 500ms
    • RF communication distance is 20mm for physical cards, 40mm for smartphones
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Presentation slide from the NFC Forum Japan meeting, July 2016
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Presentation slide from the NFC Forum Japan meeting, July 2016

The Suica transaction starts from the 85mm mark while MIFARE and EMV contactless cards start at the 20mm mark. Because of the greater RF communication distance Suica transactions start much earlier as the card travels toward the reader tap area. It you look closely at the 2nd slide you can see that smartphones have a slightly earlier EMV/MIFARE RF transaction starting at the 40mm mark (the 1.1A/m boundary) due to the larger smartphone antenna, physical EMV cards with smaller antennas are limited to 20mm. This is why smartphones seem faster than physical cards on NFC-A gates. Suica physical cards have a larger antenna and the same RF transaction distance as smartphones.

NFC-A transaction speed is slower because it has to be on top of the reader before it can start. This is also the limitation with optical based QR and bar codes, the transaction only starts when the smartphone screen is close enough to the reader for an error free scan. Transit gates using these technologies are not designed for smooth walk through flow.

The speed difference is clearly seen on the Nankai VISA Touch open loop gates: the transaction starts when the card is physically on top of the reader:

Here is Suica style transit gate for comparison:

One of the smart things Nankai is doing in the test phase (limited to a few key stations) is keeping EMV/QR gates separate from standard FeliCa gates. This is practical. Regular users go through the faster regular gates, the occasional open loop or QR users go through slower EMV/QR gates. Keeping different readers separate and clearly marked helps keep walk flow smooth and crowding down at busier stations. The Nankai program has been put on pause for another year due to the collapse of inbound travelers in the COVID pandemic. It’s a trial run as Osaka area transit gear up for an anticipated inbound travel boom in connection with Expo 2025, that may, or may not pan out.

The Nankai VISA Touch gates are designed for physical cards, Apple Pay works but without Express Transit. That’s a plus as Apple Pay EMV Express Transit on TfL and other open loop systems (OMNY) has come under scrutiny for a potential security risk with VISA cards that allows ‘scammers’ (in lab settings) to make non-transit charges to Apple Pay VISA cards via Express Mode, something that is not supposed to be possible.

Timur Yunusov, a senior security expert at Positive Technologies…said a lack of offline data authentication allows this exploit, even though there are EMVCo specifications covering these transactions.

“The only problem is that now big companies like MasterCard, Visa and AMEX don’t need to follow these standards when we talk about NFC payments – these companies diverged in the early 2010s, and everyone is now doing what they want here,” he said.

Security researcher: Flaw in Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay makes fraud easy for thieves, Techepublic

In other words, Apple removing Apple Pay bio-authentication to promote EMV Express Mode for open loop transit puts Apple Pay at the mercy of lax card network payment operation practices who don’t follow their own rules. Not that it’s a real problem in the field but accidents do happen, such as this incident on Vancouver BC TransLink that a reader forwarded:

Just a moment ago, I nearly got dinged on my CC while sitting on a high seat near a door which is where one of the validators are located. The validator picked it up from the backside rather than the front side where the tap area is located. Also, somehow, my iPhone authorized the transaction when I only want to return to the home screen instead.

If the open-loop was implemented in a way where the card must be pre authorized before the card can be tapped at a validator, it wouldn’t get me in a situation where I need to deal with customer service to dispute some charges. Good thing this time, transaction was declined so nothing related to this charge showed up in my account.

Smartphone users be careful around the backside of Vancouver BC TransLink pole readers

And then there is data privacy, a far larger and long term problem is how open loop transit user data is stored and used. Apple always says they don’t know what Apple Pay users are doing as the data stays private. Fair enough, but the same doesn’t apply to the bank card companies. Open loop payment platforms in Japan, like stera transit, love to promote the customer data reporting services they provide to transit companies.

Plastic transit IC cards are basically private, they have a card number but nothing else. Credit/debit cards have your entire profile coming along with your open loop use and stera report a subset of this in their reports. And where is this data stored? In Japan, in Korea, somewhere else, wherever stera has a data sub-contractor? Payment transaction companies have been burned, repeatedly, when caught storing Japanese card transaction data outside of Japan…but they keep doing it again when everybody’s back is turned. This problem isn’t going away because of flimsy laws, lax industry practices and last but not least: personal data is a valuable commodity.

There is also the aspect of the price of cost effectiveness. When data processing stays in the country of origin, that means local employment and tax revenue feeds the national economy. When data processing goes outside the country, those are lost. This kind of discussion never takes place when it comes to transaction data processing, which it should, especially when publicly funded transit operators are involved.

Open loop is only part of a larger picture
Canadian transit would certainly benefit from a Japanese transit IC system approach with compatibility on the backend, or even the China T-Union approach of a national card spec that is locally branded but works everywhere.

To come back to the beginning, my point isn’t about slamming EMV or QR open loop transit, just the assumptions that they solve everything. They have their place in intelligently designed fare systems but only constitute part of the larger transit fare system picture. And as I have pointed out many times, card companies have little interest in improving the EMV standard for transit needs. They want to capture transit fare business without investing. The focus will always be the supermarket checkout lane that EMV was designed for.

There will always be a risk involved when ignoring the hidden assumptions of EMV open loop as a one size fits all solution. Dedicated transit cards will always be necessary. Every transit system is unique and deserves the best solution for the transit company and the riders they serve.


Related post: USA Transit Fare System Evolution

OMNY white-label card completes the EMV only OMNY system

After a long gestation, and a COVID related delay, the mighty swipe MetroCard replacement finally shipped. The OMNY card: a white-label EMV bank payment card using the mastercard payment network, not a MIFARE or FeliCa smartcard like San Fransisco Clipper or Tokyo Suica. MetroCard missed the transit smartcard revolution of the late 1990’s, so MTA and their ticketing system management company Cubic Transportation Systems went all in with a new CUBIC designed system built using EMV payment network processing i.e. ‘open payment‘ regular EMV contactless credit/debit cards for mainstream transit fare use, and dedicated white-label EMV prepaid debit transit cards that replace MetroCard, relegated to a backup role for users who cannot use regular credit/debit cards for transit.

OMNY is envisioned and designed as a ‘one size fits all’ approach where bank card EMV payment networks (VISA, mastercard, American Express, etc.) are promoted as transit tickets since everybody supposedly already use bank cards for all daily life purchases. The addition of fare capping, basically a OMNY closed loop card feature for open loop, further encourages regular credit/debit card use and reduces the need for issuing OMNY card. And rest assured, MTA very much wants to get out of the card issuing business…good luck with that.

One problem with one size fits all open loop thinking is it ignores reality. Different people have different transit needs: minors, seniors, disabled, daily commuters with set routes, people without credit cards and so on. Even with fare capping open loop cannot handle these well, if it did TfL would have killed Oyster card long ago. One thing is certain, the piecemeal OMNY rollout has not been an easy transition for MetroCard users. As of February 2022 only 24% of MTA riders use OMNY, that’s a lot of MetroCard. I predict most will only switch from MetroCard when forced to do so when swipe readers are turned off at the gate in 2024.

What is OMNY card?
OMNY card is a private branded ‘white-label’ EMV prepaid debit card that comes with a CVC/CVV security number from a mastercard issuing agency, similar to private branded credit/debit store cards. Chicago Ventra tried a similar arrangement years ago. Ventra (also managed by Cubic by the way) has a long glitchy open loop history from its debut with the ill-fated mastercard prepaid debit Ventra card. Streets Blog had this to say about it in 2017.

Arguably it’s a good thing that the Ventra prepaid debit card is going the way of the dinosaur. The debit card function debuted with a long list of fees that had the potential to siphon of much of the money stored on the card, including:

A $1.50 ATM withdrawal fee
A $2 fee to speak to someone about the retail debit account.
A $6.00 fee for closing out the debit balance
A $2 fee for a paper statement
A $2.95 fee to add money to the debit account using a personal credit card
A $10 per hour fee for “account research’’ to resolve account discrepancies

“These fees were probably not any different than other bank cards offered by Money Network or Meta Bank or other predatory banks,” says Streetsblog Chicago’s Steven Vance, who reported on the issue at the time. “But it was shameful for the CTA to be aligned with that.”

After a backlash, most of these fees were reduced or eliminated, but CTA retail outlets were still allowed to charge Ventra card holders a fee of up to $4.95 to load cash on the debit sides of their cards. So maybe it is for the best that the CTA is getting out of the bank card business.

StreetsBlog Chicago December 2017

Let’s hope the OMNY card issuer and MTA do a better job of hiding their white-label OMNY prepaid debit card fees. Because let’s face it, even though OMNY card is ‘closed loop’ it still uses the same EMV payment network that open loop cards do. I call it faux closed loop because OMNY doesn’t process their own fare payments, nor does OMNY (as of this writing) offer commuter passes, student discounts, etc. OMNY station kiosks that have yet to be installed will likely be modified ATM machines that take money instead of dispensing it.

A digital version of OMNY was advertised to launch on Apple Pay and Google Pay ‘soon’, although MTA now says it ‘expects’ to launch OMNY iOS and Android apps necessary for adding OMNY to Wallet sometime in 2023. We shall see. When the OMNY digital card does finally launch, expect the same rebranded version of mastercard closed loop Ventra and Opal digital cards, all managed by Cubic. As most of the open loop systems in North America, UK and Australia are designed and managed by Cubic it’s helpful to compare their ticketing system profiles.

Transition bumps in road
When you carefully analyze the different systems and Express Mode transit support listed on the Where you can ride transit using Apple Pay support page, one condition becomes clear: current transit systems do not support Apple Pay Transit cards and EMV Express Transit when the system uses both MIFARE and EMV open loop. It seems to be a choice between supporting one or the other, not both. I suspect Apple and the transit system operator do this because of the complexity supporting MIFARE and EMV mixed mode operations on the same transit system.

OMNY is a new system however, built exclusively on EMV. When Apple Pay OMNY launches, OMNY will be the first system to support both EMV as an Apple Pay transit card and EMV Express Transit mode for credit/debit cards. There is a catch however similar to using Apple Pay China T-Union cards: turning on one card for Express Transit turns off other cards.

This happens when cards share the same NFC ID number which results in card clash at the gate reader. When cards share the same ID, only one card can be set for Express Transit mode at any one time. For EMV cards this applies to payment cards as well so Express Transit Card settings will likely turn off any activated payment cards when an OMNY card to turned on, and vice versa. Otherwise the complaints from Apple Pay MTA users would be endless.

The last big OMNY headache: MTA Railroad ticketing
After OMNY card is launched on Apple Pay and Google Pay, the next OMNY challenge will be integrating Metro-North and LIRR commuter rail ticketing. A difficult task as none of the train line are equipped with NFC card readers. MTA has yet to unveil any commuter rail ticketing integration details. Ventra has the same problem, commuter rail ticketing remains the age old conductor visual inspection, no tap and go contactless. And as ever there are thorny open loop user data privacy issues.

OMNY truly represents the state of American public transit as it tries to get on board with mobile payments. Progress is good and welcome but instead of real meaningful development, American public transit will continue to be a confused mess of endless broken promises. This can’t change as long as America treats public transit as a subsidized welfare and jobs program instead of an essential public infrastructure.

Updated 2022-07-01

UWB Touchless Express Transit and Apple Pay for iOS 15?

A recent sudden surge of hits from Hong Kong accessing my December 2019 UWB Touchless Mobile FeliCa post seemed odd. I dug around and it appears that Hong Kong MTR, like JR East, is making noises about incorporating UWB technology in next generation transit gates.

iOS 14.5 added a new PassKit call for Bluetooth and the U1 chip integration since iPhone 11 and Apple Watch 6, coupled with global FeliCa support certainly puts Apple ahead of the game. I have no idea what WWDC21 will deliver but more UWB integration is a given.

Apple only mentioned UWB Touchless at WWDC20 in connection with digital car key without showing anything because the Car Connectivity Consortium Digital Key 3.0 spec was a work in progress. Now that the spec is in-place with BMW said to deliver car models incorporating UWB Touchless this year, will Apple show it in action? I think it’s highly likely, but since Car Key is a ‘Wallet Card’, and Wallet app Express Cards come is 3 types: Transit, Student ID, and Car Key, the more interesting question is…will Apple also show Touchless Transit and Student ID Express Cards? And what about Apple Pay?

People think Touchless is a completely new thing for ‘keep smartphone in pocket’ transactions, and they worry about security. You can’t blame them because marketers are selling the in-pocket payment experience. However, Touchless is simply long distance NFC without NFC. All UWB Touchless does is describe the frequency to use Bluetooth instead of NFC. The background stuff, secure element and so on, is exactly the same. This means user interaction is the same. For walking through transit gates and security doors, or unlocking your car, the convenience of Touchless is easy to understand: no more NFC tapping, just keep moving.

What about Express Card payments? The current Apple Pay Suica payment checkout experience: the user taps Suica on a touchscreen, or tells the clerk “Suica” then holds the device to the reader. The user has to give consent before the transaction is activated by checkout staff or the self checkout reader. For Apple Pay EMV transactions users have the extra step of confirming a transaction by Face ID/Touch ID to complete it.

Realistically however, in what situations does Touchless make store checkout more convenient and faster? Drive thru certainly, supermarkets…maybe, but most stores will probably not want to invest in Touchless without a good reason when the NFC readers they already have installed get the job done. There is one more interesting role that Apple has planned for UWB however, one that promises to improve the entire Apple Pay and Wallet experience: communicating with the reader before transaction to select the right Wallet card for the job, at a distance, for a truly smart Wallet app. With national ID cards, passports and more coming to Wallet at some point, UWB could be the Wallet reboot we really need.

And then there is EMVCo. The problems with UWB Touchless for EMVCo are that: (1) Touchless only works with devices with batteries, á la AirTag, and doesn’t work with the current plastic card model, (2) UWB + Bluetooth level the digital playing field with FeliCa and MIFARE, no more ‘real’ vs ‘who cares’ NFC hardware flavors to split hairs over. The plastic card NFC limitation is probably a bitter pill for everybody but especially for EMVCo members and issuers as plastic card issue is big business, and many customers are more comfortable with plastic cards. For those reasons I think EMVCo will be the last to support UWB Touchless, if they do at all. On the plus side Touchless does give digital wallet platforms an edge to create smart aware wallets, digital does NFC and Touchless, plastic only does NFC. We’ll find out about Apple’s UWB Touchless roadmap at WWDC21.