The Future of Keys and Fobs


In recent years, the idea of using a mechanical key to open or start your car has changed. You might have a chipped key, for example, which ties that key exactly to your car. Or, you might have a key fob which allows you to open your car at the press of a button, and without which, your car won’t start or drive. Most recently cars have begun using virtual keys, in other words, a way to open or start your car using your mobile phone.

Chipped Keys:

Chipped keys are technically known as “transponder keys”, short for “transmitter and responder”. The difference between a chipped key and a normal key is that if you try to use a chipped key for a car not designed for it (the serial number /code doesn’t fit) the car will become immobilized.

Car thieves often employed hot-wiring techniques which could be tot to teenagers, so if they were caught “booting” a car they could claim they were just joyriding and get off with little punishment. Chipped keys require a more technically savvy thief. While a teenager could still do it, it’s harder to play dumb when you’re bringing equipment with you and using advanced techniques. The drop in car theft may be linked to this–in 1990 when chipped keys became widely used there were roughly 660 car thefts per 100,000 vehicles which has dropped to 239.6 thefts per 100,000 vehicles so it does seem to make a difference.

The problem with chipped keys is the expense of replacing them. Most of us grew up running down the local hardware store and running off a copy of our car keys in case of emergency. Those days are gone. If you do lose your keys, and it’s not hard to do, it means ordering one from the factory or authorized key outlet. A replacement for a chipped key runs about $200 more than a mechanical key.

Key Fobs:

Some cars have a special fob designed, usually with the brand of car on them. The term “fob” dates back to days of pocket watches. First, the fob referred to the pocket, then the watch and then to items hanging from a chain. It now refers to items on key rings such as small toys, devices and so on. The fob is usually individual to special makes of car. Most fobs offer the choice of opening the car door, opening the trunk and raising an alarm.

Key fobs aren’t cheap either but ironically they can be cheaper than a chipped key, and it’s just easier on the brain to pay a bunch of money for an electronic device than what looks like a normal key.

Virtual Keys:

This leads us to virtual keys which allow you to open your car using your mobile phone. The general idea allows someone else to use your vehicle without handing over a physical key-ideal for rental

The first drawback here is obvious. Someone has to gain access to your pocket to get your key or fob, whereas a cell phone can get hacked. The latest way to use the technology requires platforms such as Bluetooth technology, WiFi or Cellular Network, using the latest in secure chip technology.

To make it worse, there isn’t one standard phone-based system. One example of the system not quite working at the moment is the Ericcson Digital Car Key. It may unlock the car, but instead of using something like Bluetooth it works on the cloud. Unless you subscribe to the specific cloud you can’t access the key. Rival schemes like “Bosch Perfectly keyless” also have their problems. It is too confusing at the moment with so many different apps and designs.

A group of companies (including technology and car companies) called the Car Connectivity Consortium are attempting to create a universal standard. Though there are a number of businesses involved it still has not spread across all makes of car or mobile networks. Clearly, one issue is proprietary technology at car companies or mobile companies.

It would be a shame if the link between the key and the car totally disappears, but security and convenience should come first.

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