What's up? The price of your car keys. How much? It could be a little or a whole lot. Technology has affected everything you own, and that includes your car keys.
Vehicle security has changed in these technological times. In the 1970's some cars began to use unconventional keys which must be cut using special machinery. In 1986, GM introduced VATS immobilization, which requires using an ignition key containing a electronic resistor pellet.
Today, transponder technology is redefining the way vehicles are being protected.
Transponder based immobilization is a very effective deterrent against auto theft. Embedded in the head of the key is a radio frequency "chip" which transmits a unique digital code to the car. The car must be programmed to recognize each key. The car is electronically shut down unless a properly programmed key is used to start the car.
This prevents a vehicle from being stolen by any of the classic methods of forcing, breaking, or lock manipulation. Stronger and better locks are good, but there is nothing which cannot eventually be broken or defeated. Therefore, electronic immobilization is ideal. It is safe to say that countless cars have not been stolen because of transponder technology.
Transponder keys and the associated components in the car cost more, but considering the extra security it is probably money well spent. Even though all these systems work by inducing the transponder key to transmit its unique digital code, how these codes work and required programming procedures vary considerably. This translates into quite a difference in the cost of keys, and how easy it is for you to be able to obtain them.
For example, one of the most user friendly transponder systems is used on the early Fords (1996-'97). In order to add additional keys, all you need is one existing key. The programming can be done on-board without any special equipment, and takes only seconds. If all keys are lost to the car, the programming can still be done without diagnostic equipment, but there is some time involved. Keys are relatively inexpensive, approximately $20.00, give or take.
There are keys for other cars which may be in about the same price range for a duplicate, but duplicating your car key is just part of the process. The car must learn the unique digital code of each key, and that may require additional expense. Looking at Ford again, most of their models switched to a different programming method beginning in 1998. In order to add duplicate keys, you must have two existing programmed keys. To add a key requires cycling the two existing keys in the ignition, followed by the new duplicate. If only one key is available, then the car must be connected to diagnostic equipment to program keys, and this will certainly add to the cost. Depending on the car, programming keys may require using diagnostic equipment, no matter how many keys you have.
There are a few types of keys which may have the transponder digital code cloned to another key. In these cases, diagnostic or on-board programming is not necessary as long as one key is available. Details of programming transponder keys varies depending on the make, year and model, and also if all keys are lost, or if only one key is available.
How secure do you want to be? Transponder systems certainly make a car much more secure against theft. However, manufacturers can also use this technology in ways which may cause great expense and/or inconvenience to the owner. All of these systems immobilize your car electronically, but the more exclusive the system, the more you can be charged for services.Common ways to make the system exclusive are:
The necessity of proprietary diagnostic equipment for key programming.
Establishing vehicle specific PIN codes necessary for key programming.
The use of proprietary transponder chips.
Using special encrypted codes within the car's on-board system
Servicing most transponder equipped cars requires some type of special equipment. Locksmiths must make a substantial investment to service transponder keys, and the investment is ongoing with the continued development of necessary new software and tools.
With some cars, locksmiths may have the capability to program keys, but essential information or PIN codes are either cumbersome to get, or not available. All Volkswagen and Audi cars require a vehicle specific PIN code for any key programming. VW/Audi has taken several steps to greatly complicate the process. There are several other cars which require these PINs.
There is a trend toward proprietary chips used in keys. Many keys are reasonably priced because the components are off-the-shelf. Nevertheless, manufacturers can use technology to their favor and produce keys which use transponders only available through them. For instance, the later Toyota and Lexus vehicles use key blanks which cost the locksmith about four times that of what was previously available. There are other makes which have begun to use exclusive chips including some later Mitsubishi, Nissan, Infiniti and Ford automobiles. Is your car which use these special chips less likely to be stolen? Probably not, but you will pay a lot more for your keys.
Manufactures can claim exclusivity is greater security, and honestly that may bear a small measure of truth. Unfortunately, exclusivity may also be used simply to boost profits of the car companies, and it is very hard to prove which factor is in play.
Say you are on a ski trip in Colorado and the only key to your Volvo S40 falls out of your pocket on the lift. At present, the only way to program Volvo keys is to have the car in the service bay at the dealer, and connected to their diagnostic equipment. Since it is Saturday afternoon, you better figure on some extra lodging, then waiting until Monday to tow your car several hundred miles to the dealer so a key can be made. In many cases that dealer won't even be able to mechanically cut the key, and you might wind up waiting an extra day to have one shipped overnight so that it may be programmed by the dealer. Now if you had a Ford Explorer, there would be any number of locksmiths with the ability to come to the car, fit a key, and program the transponder on the spot.
Another interesting but different example is the immobilization system used on BMW. BMW uses a system which the manufacturer has exclusive control of. The transponders use a rolling code technology in which part of a different code is written to the key each time it is used. When the car is manufactured, there are 10 chips programmed into the immobilizer. You order additional keys through a dealer, which are already programmed for the car. When all 10 chip values have been used, you must replace the immobilizer system. Additionally, BMW is very restrictive about ordering keys. You must present certain documents at the dealer to prove ownership.
There are situations where these cars have been purchased at auctions, and the buyers have applied for and received salvage titles. BMW will not sell keys if the owner has a salvage title. So, they will not order a key to get you going, but, they will install locks and a new immobilizer to get you going.. A potential customer recently related that BMW was going to charge$1600.00 to replace the necessary parts to get his car running. To deny ordering a key, but then to require replacing parts at a much higher cost, defies reasonalbe explaination.
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In general, transponder immobilization systems are very effective against auto theft. Cars will always be stolen by a number of different methods, but transponder technology is highly effective against the see, break, drive away threat. However, look out for this technology because it may become your nemesis.
Copyright 2005 - Greg N. Brandt