Gone are the days of having a $5 mechanical key cut at the corner locksmith when you have lost your car key. Rather, the cutting and programming of keys have become a high-tech business.
Car keys are fitted with transponder chips that must be programmed to match a voltage signal set by the manufacturer into the electronic control unit to create a handshake between the key and the car allowing the engine to start. Some locksmiths have the equipment to do this chip programming.
Some fobs can be purchased and programmed yourself. You can find a comprehensive guide on programming key fobs for your car here.
Car keys are notorious for becoming lost, forcing the vehicle owner to incur the expense of having a locksmith cut and program a new set of keys. There are three scenarios that locksmiths typically have to contend with:
1. Car keys locked inside the car;
2. The main car key is lost, but a spare key is still available;
3. All keys are lost, and the car is locked
Let's look at the protocol that certified locksmiths have to follow to identify the key cutting code to enable the cutting and programming of a new key.
The Evolution of Car Keys
The fight between car thieves and carmakers is likely to be as old as the car industry. Cars have become status symbols and are part of the DNA of our modern society. Gone are the days when a car thief could start a stolen car within seconds.
Modern cars have evolved beyond the point of having a physical key and now use a key fob with a transponder chip programmed to be recognized by the car's ignition system.
The first cars had a starter crank handle and a simple on/off switch needed to start the engine. You were more likely to need a blacksmith than a locksmith if you lost your crank handle.
Next came the mechanical ignition key that matched the doors, boot, and car's ignition. These keys were a big improvement over the mechanical crank handle, but they needed a locksmith to cut them from a blank key if lost.
Mechanical keys were the norm until the 1990s when car thieves were banking insane amounts of money, and the owners and insurance companies insisted that the carmakers up the ante and make car theft more difficult.
By the 1990s, cars had evolved beyond mechanical timing systems and carburetor-fed engines. The electronic control unit (ECU) had become the central computer that managed all the electronic functions in the car, including ignition timing, fuel injection, fault finding, and vehicle security.
The ECU was programmed with a unique identification code that required the keys to be fitted with an inductive transponder that had to be programmed with the same code to allow for recognition between the key and the ECU before the engine ignition circuit would be enabled.
The programing equipment and software are strictly controlled and can only be obtained by certified and registered locksmiths. The manufacturer-appointed car dealers buy stock of blank keys from the manufacturer parts department, which is supplied to the locksmiths.
The key-cutting equipment resembles a mini-CNC mechanical or laser cutting tool. The unique vehicle identification number (VIN) can provide the locksmith with the exact key cutting code required to cut the blank key into a replica of the original car key.
The newly cut key will unlock the doors and even turn over the ignition but will not be able to start the car until the transponder chip in the new key has been programmed with the recognition voltage required by the ECU.
The carmakers have agreed upon programming protocols to make the programming equipment somewhat universal and allow the locksmith to cut and program car keys for most car brands.
Mobile locksmiths have to travel to the car's location to unpick the locks, cut new keys, and program them on site. The visit will likely set you back about $350 per new key.
Types Of Keys Needed For The Modern Car
During the past decade, car keys for the modern car come in one of the four following categories:
• Transponder embedded key in a plastic housing.
• Transponder key with remote lock/unlock and trunk opening buttons embedded in a plastic housing and powered by a small battery.
• A key fob house the programmable transponder chip in a plastic housing containing a mechanical master key tucked into the fob. The fob also contains the remote buttons for the door locks, fuel flap release, and boot.
• Proximity fobs contain only the transponder chip to greet the ECU and allow the car to be started via push-button start.
New cars are sold with two sets of keys with transponders and other functions built into the key fob.
It is highly recommended that you have a secure location to keep one spare set or even have an additional spare set of keys made by a locksmith.
How Do Locksmiths Program New Car Keys or Fobs?
Some car brands will only allow you to purchase a replacement car key directly from their dealer network after supplying proof of ownership and the unique vehicle identification number (VIN).
Such dealer-supplied keys will either come programmed or need to be put through a self-programming process described in the vehicle owner manual. Be ready to pay a premium for such keys as the car dealer and the manufacturer are looking to profit from your misfortune. A cost of $600 excluding shipping and handling is typical.
If you are lucky to own a Japanese, Korean, or US car brand, a certified locksmith will be able to cut and program a replacement key at around $350 per call out. US and Asian car manufacturers have shared their key programming protocols, allowing special key cutting and programming equipment to be sold to locksmiths.
Certified locksmiths performing this service have mobile service vehicles that will travel to where the car is parked, eliminating the need for towing costs to get it to a locksmith's workshop. The locksmith technicians are trained and certified to perform the task of cutting keys and programming the transponder chips by industry training authorities, allowing them to assist almost all brands of vehicles.
The locksmiths have to invest in the various programs and equipment needed for this task. There is no single program available that covers all makes and models, and the investment required puts the acquisition beyond the reach of professional locksmiths.
The software to program the key will allow the locksmith to add new keys and delete old keys, as some car brands only allow for a limited number of keys to be programmed to the car's ECU. The locksmith will erase lost or stolen keys from the ECU programming.
Locksmiths have access to purchase tokens needed to enable each programming event. In this way, the software producers can ensure that tokens are only sold to certified and authorized locksmiths eliminating the risk of car thieves getting access to the equipment and software.
The locksmith thus has to incur the expense of training technicians, inverting in mobile workshops and equipment, and the purchase of tokens for each programming event. All these costs have to be factored into a callout to come and cut and reprogram a new set of keys.
The cost of replacing a car key will vary between $25 to $100 per key, excluding the distance traveled and the cost of obtaining the cutting code and any additional information required to complete the task. Be ready to hand over about $350 per event.
German car manufacturers do not share their protocols. Owning a Mercedes, BMW, VW, or a Porsche will make you appreciate and look after your car keys as having them replaced can only be done via a dealer and will cost you dearly.