Thursday, July 16, 2020

Car Keys

I've written about locks before, but I've run into a few issues with keys in particular and want to share what I've learned so someone else might avoid the hassles.

I recently bought a used Range Rover SUV that only came with one key. This is a problem for several reasons, the most important of which being my wife will drive it occasionally and my desire to have a back-up for everything important. Since this was a newer car, it came with an electronic key fob containing a “laser cut” key blade. The dealership (commonly referred to as the stealership for this make of vehicle) wanted $850 to make a duplicate key, so I started looking for less expensive options. The programmable key fob was easy to find on eBay and Amazon, but finding someone who could or would cut the blade to the right shape was more of a challenge.

I found exactly two locksmith shops in the nearest city (population ~500k) that had the equipment to cut the “laser cut” or “sidewinder” keys. One was a small, veteran-owned shop so I decided to give him my business. The owner/operator's name is Tony and he was very helpful and friendly. I learned more than a few things in the hour or so it took to get the key cut and the new key fob programmed to my car (for a grand total of $180).
  • The blade of the key will open the driver's door, but won't start the car without the electronic key fob. I had a spare blade cut so I can have a way to get into the car if/when my wife locks the keys in the car. This is a recurring issue with her, so I have to plan around it.
  • My particular anti-theft system is rather robust in that it disables the engine computer if the key fob isn't near the ignition switch. There's no remote-start option available, but it's pretty much impossible to “hot-wire” such a car.
  • Each key fob has a programmable chip in it that communicates with the computer in the car. This chip is designed to be programmed once and only once, so I needed a “virgin” key fob. The stealership might be able to reprogram a used key fob, but the available references weren't clear on that matter.
  • Vehicle manufacturers are getting serious about security on the higher-priced cars and trucks, which  was part of the reason most locksmiths wouldn't touch the type of key I needed made. Tony had to use a couple of electronic tools plugged into my car's diagnostic port to get the key fob programmed, but some brands are easier. There are several of the really expensive brands (Jaguar, BMW, Mercedes, etc.) that you have to go to the dealership for, since they won't share the information needed. Mine is old enough (12 years) that some information is available, but not freely given.
  • The locksmithing trade is still fairly locked down. Information is tightly controlled, and nothing is free. Even a licensed locksmith who cuts keys for a living will have to pay to access some of the information needed to cut vehicle keys and program key fobs.

While chatting with Tony, I mentioned my wife's ability to lock the keys in a car at least once a year. This is a major problem due to her health issues and the fact that she seems to do it when she's an hour away from home. He laughed and handed me a couple of business cards to give to her, then explained how to avoid having to use them.

40-50 years ago, most cars came with two different keys. One was for the doors and trunk lock, and the other was for the ignition switch. Chevrolet used a round head on the door keys and a squared head for the ignition keys, if I recall correctly; Ford did something similar. It was easy to have a spare “door” key made and hide it behind the license plate or in a magnetic key box somewhere under the car.

My wife's car is a early 2000's Oldsmobile. Tony was able to look up that model and told me that the (single) key it used had a neat feature: the door locks only use the back half of the key, while the ignition switch uses the whole length. This will let a locksmith cut a key that can open the door but won't turn the ignition switch, which is something that is more secure to hide on the outside of the car than a fully cut key since anyone who finds it won't be able to start the car and drive it away. Talk to your locksmith about your particular car, since this information is not readily available to the public. I'm good at researching things and I can't find it, so it's probably on sites that are subscription-only for licensed locksmiths.

Tony also recommended having a spare set of house keys under the seat of the car, for the times she locks her house keys inside (not as frequent as locking her cars keys, but it has happened a few times). This is more secure than the “key under the welcome mat” or fake rock key hiders.

Find a local locksmith and get to know them. Everyone is going to need one at some time in their life for keys locked in a car, changing the locks on a house, or upgrading the locks on your doors. Most of them are small businesses, which I prefer, and if you find a good one they can offer good advice along with their services.

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