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Smart Keys

You may think of your car key as little more than a tool to start the car. But have you ever considered that it may also be the best tool to prevent your car from being stolen?

Car keys were actually created as a theft-deterrent soon after the birth of the automobile, and as both vehicles and thieves became more sophisticated, keys have had to keep up. As part of the ongoing war against auto theft, modern car keys use microchips, secret codes and even radio communications to help protect your car from unauthorized use. A few automakers today even offer apps that enable your smartphone to act as a car key.

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the first electronic vehicle anti-theft keys appeared. They contained a resistor pellet that completed a circuit to the car’s security system. If the resistance value of the key pellet was incorrect, the car would not start.

In the mid-1990s, “transponder” keys debuted containing a microchip with an encoded identification number. When the ignition is turned on, the vehicle electronically probes the key for its ID number. If it doesn’t match one programmed into the security system, the engine won’t start. Newer versions have two-way vehicle communications and an added “rolling” security code that changes with every engine start. Transponder keys continue to be used on many new cars today.

Replacing a transponder key is similar to getting a mechanical key cut, except the key blank is more expensive and the vehicle must be programmed to recognize the new key before it will work. Some cars allow you to program new keys yourself, but many require a visit to a locksmith or dealer with special equipment.

In the early 2000s, automakers began to introduce “smart” key systems that employ enhanced radio communications and multiple antennae to detect when the key fob is near or inside the vehicle. In addition to security benefits, these keys offer added conveniences such as opening the doors and starting the engine without taking the key fob out of one’s pocket or purse. Many smart keys also offer the ability to store vehicle settings for individual drivers, remotely open windows and/or the sunroof and more.

While smart keys are durable, they are not waterproof and should be kept dry. A replacement fob will cost well in excess of $100 and normally requires programming by a locksmith or dealer.