High-tech car keys causing low-tech hassles

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.

Consumer study shows replacing an electronic key can cost a bundle

By Roland JonesBusiness editorMSNBC


Phil Nebe is a busy man. His mobile locksmith company, Autolox, has its work cut out for it helping drivers locked out of their cars in the Richmond, Va., area, such as the tourist passing through the Southern town one Saturday evening who managed to accidentally flush his car keys down a restaurant toilet.

The hapless vacationer put himself up in a hotel until his key was replaced a delay that may sound strange to those of us accustomed to a trip to the local hardware store or a call to the AAA to deal with a lost car key. But this driver’s key was electronic, and so he was forced to wait for days until it was replaced, Nebe said.

You can count on this happening at least once every weekend, Nebe said. We can’t get the information we need to complete the re-programming of the car’s computer system outside normal business hours, he added. Sometimes it will take a few days to get the right key for the customer and they’ll have to get a rental car. And so it’s not just the new car key being expensive, it’s the rental car you have to pay for too.

Technology was supposed to set us free, but in the car industry it’s locking us out of our vehicles. And as many more car keys contain electronic chips and come equipped with computerized anti-theft ignition systems, this problem looks set to worsen, experts say.

The days of visiting a hardware store for an extra car key are quickly vanishing, and consumers and advocacy groups say the time needed to replace missing or lost electronic keys is inordinately long and expensive and drivers may have no recourse when dealerships are not open. Getting a new electronic key can cost hundreds of dollars, including the cost of towing a car.

Unlike an old-fashioned mechanical key, which unlocks a door or starts an ignition with its teeth, an electronic car key works by sending a code that must be read electronically before a vehicle’s engine will start. The technology for these keys is evolving rapidly and only a few locksmiths are investing in the technology needed to replace them, meaning most drivers who lose their keys are forced to visit a dealership for a replacement.

The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group founded by the Consumers Union and Ralph Nader, recently petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to investigate auto companies for not releasing the codes needed to duplicate keys and for charging high fees for replacement key and for reprogramming car computers with new codes.

This is a relatively new issue because electronic keys just came on to the market in the late 1990s, said Clarence Ditlow, the center’s executive director. "Back then, I think a maximum of 10 percent of the cars on the road had these kinds of keys; now I think it’s more like 60 percent, and of course it takes time for people to start losing their keys, so we are just starting to see these sorts of problems and I think it’s the tip of the iceberg."

In a study of the cost of replacing keys in 50 makes and models of vehicles in the Washington, D.C., area, Ditlow’s group found that the average cost of an old-fashioned mechanical key was $12, while the average local dealer price of a ‘smart’ or electronic key was $152. The highest key replacement cost was $335 for a 2004 Lexus IS300.

Ditlow speculates that with a healthy profit coming from their service and parts replacement divisions, auto companies are reluctant to make the codes for their electronic keys more readily available. For their part, automakers say making the information readily accessible would lessen the effectiveness of their anti-theft systems. To remedy this, Ditlow has suggested that the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which combats theft and insurance fraud, maintain a database of key codes so they can be easily located.

But the automobile industry looks unlikely to budge. A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Charles Territo, told Automotive News recently that the trade commission does not need to intervene and that some automakers already provide their key replacement information to locksmiths.

Some automakers do indeed provide their information, but not all. And as automobile electronics become increasingly sophisticated and increasingly common, the electronic key problem looks set to continue to dog drivers experts say. Most luxury cars now have sophisticated electronic key systems, and car lockouts are among the most common reasons for roadside-assistance calls according to the AAA.

Car brands that have the biggest key replacement problems in the Richmond, Va., include high-end names like Saab, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo, according to Phil Nebe.

‘We understand that manufacturers are concerned about security, but locksmiths need the correct information to be able to put customers back on the road quickly,’ Nebe said, adding that auto makers are making some changes and are more forthcoming with information, albeit slowly. ‘You still have customers who have to spend nights in hotels, or miss a vacation because keys were lost.’