Car Keys Playing A Bigger Role Than Simply Starting The EngineCar Keys Playing A Bigger Role Than Simply Starting The Engine

If you believe that your cell phone is only capable of making a phone call, then you also likely believe that your car key is only able to start your vehicle's engine. The fact is, much as your cell phone has evolved into a multitasking communications device, your car key has undergone quite an evolution since the simple brass key that turned the engine of the Model T. Motivated by sophisticated technology, customer convenience and industry efforts to reduce auto theft, automotive manufacturers are introducing high-tech car keys that do more than just unlock your door and start your car.

It started innocently enough when key fob technology first emerged in the 1980s...a convenient device to remotely lock and unlock doors, open the trunk or activate car alarms. Vehicle security took on added importance in the 1990s when vehicle thefts were costing car owners billions of dollars a year, thus spawning the development of anti-theft ignition immobilizers.

Ignition immobilizers consist of an electronic chip in the key that communicates with an on-board vehicle computer. When the key is inserted in the ignition, its chip performs an encrypted communication with the car's computer, asking it if an algorithmic code ─ a number with billions of combinations ─ is correct. If the code is correct, the computer starts the car. The code is reset with a different series of numbers each time the key is used.

Due to successful advancements in automotive engineering, that's now ancient technology. Today's new key technology has progressed far beyond ignition immobilization. In some new systems, you don't even need a key!

One of the new systems on the market allows the owner to activate the locking and starting systems by simply having a keyless fob in a pocket or purse - within a few feet. Imagine struggling with an armload of groceries. Upon reaching your car, instead of fumbling for car keys, you simply pull open the door, unload your packages, jump in, hit the engine "start" button and drive off. How does it do that? When the owner approaches and touches the car, antennas pick up the signal and validate the key code. Inside, another antenna validates the keyless fob's presence, allowing the owner to simply press the start button and drive off.

Another new car key technology is giving parents of teenage drivers added peace of mind. This type of car key allows parents to add all types of remote supervisory features to a new car. Each key can be programmed to limit top speed, add extra seat belt warnings, limit the volume of the car stereo and more.

For example, the seat belt-reminder feature can be programmed to continuously alert the driver to buckle up rather than shutting off after a few minutes. And it can shut down the audio system and add a reminder on the display that lets the occupants know that buckling up will unmute the stereo. Additional programming can include an early low-fuel warning that can be set to go off at 75 miles to empty instead of 50, and limits can be placed on the vehicle's top speed.

As with all new technology, these new advanced keys take some getting used to. For one, today's keys, with all their electronics, can be expensive to replace. Keys and key fobs can cost from $50 to $300 to replace, which includes the hardware and reprogramming costs.

There's also a learning curve when it comes to getting acclimated to these advanced keys, especially the sophisticated keyless systems. For example, users of keyless systems have to remember to turn off the engine after exiting the car and remind themselves to give the fob to valet parking attendants.

So where is the future of the "key" heading?

How about using your car key as a replacement for your credit card? The idea behind this developing key technology combines a high-tech microchip system with a vehicle's key fob to produce a secure contactless payment system and key in one package, ready to pay for everything from parking, tolls and maintenance, to groceries and clothing. Such integration of devices into a single unit, especially disparate technologies like keys and credit cards, functions to simultaneously downsize the growing amount of "stuff" we have to tote for everyday survival while bonding its users into that particular system...a strong loyalty marketing ploy.

Experts believe the next evolution will probably be biometrics...recognizing fingerprints, an iris or speech. Much research and development remains as biometrics entails an order of difficulty that is much higher, particularly since it's hard to recognize biosystems accurately and quickly. But make no mistake, like everything else on our cars, vans, SUVs and trucks, key and key fob technology will continue to gain in sophistication.
by Mike Trudel
References and Bibliography
Mike Trudel, Freelance Writer. Delphi Corporation is poised to apply its expertise and know-how to provide vehicle manufacturers and consumers with in-vehicle entertainment and connectivity. To learn more about Delphi Corporation, please visit
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