The 4 Types Of Automotive Keys In Use Today

Learn About The 4 Types Of Automotive Keys In Use Today

Unlike most of the components in a car, automotive key technologies did not evolve for decades, until security concerns, electronics, and the need for aesthetic differentiation compelled car companies to upgrade these symbols of ownership. Then and up to now, car keys were just slivers of metal that were used to unlock the car, activate the ignition circuit, and start the car. These days, practically all cars on the market also use the key fob to arm and disarm the anti theft system. High end cars also come with fobs that integrate other functions.

History of ignitions

Although generations past and present are used to twisting a car key to start the car and twist it again to stop the engine when one got to their destination, starting a car wasn’t always this convenient. In the early 1900s, one had to switch the ignition circuit on with the key and depress a starter button to make the engine run.

The convenience of using a single key to turn on the car’s ignition circuit and engage the starter only emerged in the early 1950s. Such an innovation was touted as a convenience and safety feature as one did not have to separately depress a starter button, and the absence of one prevented children from inadvertently causing an accident by activating it while the car was in gear.

But automotive keys have evolved with newly emerged technologies, and generally for the better. If all car keys were used for just starting the car, then a spring-loaded tumbler twisted by a flat metal (or even plastic) blade would do. But car key designs evolved due to security reasons and have thus become more and more sophisticated, with the newest fob designs having multiple functions and even displays.

Car Keys Today

Current automotive car keys come in 4 general varieties, namely standard keys, high security keys, transponder keys, and proximity remotes. Standard keys, as their name implies, are the traditional keys that come to mind when we talk of car keys. Although their designs have evolved through the years to accommodate more secure tumbler designs, they are still basically the notched designs similar in manufacture to keys that are used turn a tumbler to unlock a door lock, padlock, or car door. They are easily duplicated and offer virtually no security to modern, sophisticated car thieves.

It is worth noting that in 1986, GM introduced the VATS (Vehicle Anti Theft System) for the Corvette. Although sporting the same notched pattern as a standard key, a VATS key had a resistor embedded in the key blade. This resistor, having a possible 15 values, made it considerably harder for car thieves to steal a car, as it could lock down the starter, ignition, and fuel delivery systems on cars so equipped. The VATS system was superseded by transponder keys.

High security keys, also known as sidewinder keys are an evolution of the standard key. Thicker than standard keys, these laser-cut automotive keys feature a curved notch or valley on their sides and are not as easily duplicated as standard keys. Replicating a high security automotive key requires a laser-equipped cutting machine that only manufacturers and well-equipped professional key duplicators have access to.

With advances in electronics, manufacturers began to included a transponder in the key handle to vastly improve the vehicle’s anti theft properties. Because of its increased cost and sophistication, lower-priced cars are not provided such keys.

Proximity Remotes

Currently, the most sophisticated key technology are proximity remotes. Also known as smart keys, proximity remotes are physically different in that they lack the notched or laser-cut metal blade that we have come to expect of automotive keys. Instead, proximity remotes contain a small battery, sensors, and microchips to communicate with a specific vehicle. They can be programmed to disarm the alarm and unlock the doors as the driver approaches. Car seat and mirror settings can also be programmed. Conversely, triggering the wrong signal can lock down the car and activate the alarm. Paradoxically, the proximity fob has made the start/stop button, regarded as an inconvenience then, a fixture once more in a vehicle’s dashboard.

Manufacturers boast that their systems use rolling codes to thwart car thieves. Unfortunately, hackers have proven time and again that sophisticated systems can be hacked and it probably is a matter of time before such technology becomes child’s play to defeat. For now though, proximity remotes are the state of the art in automotive key technology.

What if you lose one these more sophisticated high security or transponder keys, or a proximity remote? Dealer gouging is not an unknown practice, unfortunately. Luckily, the knowledge to duplicate these sophisticated automotive keys are not limited to dealers, so it would be a good idea to know how to contact a professional key duplicator if and when you do lose your key, or your high tech fob starts acting up.


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