'Smart' car keys are outsmarting drivers

AAA says the new electronic devices are creating unexpected problems, and with all their advanced capabilities, they're costly to replace.

By Bruce Kennedy Mar 13, 2013 8:52AM

Image: Car being towed -- Digital Vision Ltd., SuperStockModern cars are getting smarter every year. But drivers? Maybe not so much, at least when it comes to handling their time-saving, state-of-the-art "smart keys."

AAA says it assisted more than 4 million members last year who had locked themselves out of their vehicles. And the association notes the overall number of locked-out drivers needing rescue hasn't changed much over the past five years despite the growing popularity of the new keys, which let motorists remotely unlock and start their vehicles.

Smart keys are electronic and use radio frequencies. They can add hundreds of dollars to a car's cost and can be very expensive to replace -- often with a wait time of several days. "The cost to replace a transponder key runs around $100, and replacement smart keys can cost several hundred dollars depending on the make and model," John Nielsen, AAA's director of automotive engineering and repair, said in a press statement.

"Many newer keys must be programmed by a dealer or locksmith with special electronic equipment and accesses to highly confidential codes that are required to service the vehicle security system."

In an informal online survey of car dealerships late last year by Automotive News, only 29% said they offered customers any form of key-replacement insurance.

The new technology can also provide some unexpected -- and hazardous -- challenges to uninitiated drivers.

"The spare key is in my purse inside the car, and it is running," one frantic driver posted in an owner forum recently. "The puppy stepped on the key and locked the door and no windows are open. Short of breaking a window is there any way to get in?"

AAA recommends smart-key users become familiar with the device's full capabilities and limitations in case of emergencies -- and keep a spare key in a safe location.

"Traditional car keys will likely become obsolete and be replaced by technologies offering even greater security and convenience," Nielsen said. "Motorists will need to adapt with the technology to avoid the hassle and expense of smart key replacements."

More on moneyNOW

Mar 13, 2013 11:34AM
Eventually ALL our devices will be 'smart' and we will be 'dumbed down'.

Hey, wait a minute!  Isnt this how "Terminator" starts out?

Mar 13, 2013 1:52PM
I've had a smart key for the past 3 years in my Nissan, and if anything it has prevented me from locking my keys in the car. The keys never leave my pocket, so I don't have to worry about locking them in the car. Also, if I want to leave my car running while I run in the store quick, I don't have to worry about someone driving off with it because they can't do anything without the key actually being inside the car. As for replacing them when the wear out, a simple trip to the store to buy a new battery for 4 dollars and a few minutes with a screwdriver is all it took me to change it out. Maybe the problem isn't the key, maybe the problem is the person with the key. 
Mar 13, 2013 11:08AM
So......the new keys are smarter than the drivers?
Mar 13, 2013 10:02AM
After unintentionally locking my door a couple of times with my smart key, I threw it away, and have used the "old fashioned key"ever since. No more locking doors and setting off alarms getting my keys out of my pocket.
Mar 13, 2013 1:03PM
GM cars have a nasty habit of locking themselves, albeit infrequent, even with the key still in the ignition.  I have had 2 GM cars that did this and now I always carry a spare key in my pocket.  Recently discovered that you cannot remove the key from the ignition switch on a GM car (in this case an 09 Pontiac G5) if the battery is very run down or dead.  WTF is with this?  I have no idea what the purpose of this is.

If I could, I rip the whole PassKey system out and replace it with standard lock and key like we used to have.

Mar 13, 2013 2:27PM
Smart keys require smart drivers.  Maybe the problem is between the dashboard and the drivers seat :)
Mar 13, 2013 1:03PM
Never ever buy this technology. Thieves have already broken the codes on 2012 models and can steal your car as easily as you can drive it.
Mar 13, 2013 12:17PM
I think I've locked myself out any one of my vehicles....maybe 3-4 times total..... at some point over the last 30 years.    However.....I always carry the 'spare' key buried somewhere in my wallet.     I remember taking a road trip in 1996 across Highway 50 in Nevada ( The Lonliest Road In America ).  There's NOTHING out there, and to be safe, I tied my spare key onto a shoestring & then attached it to a belt loop before burying it in my pocket.     I didn't want to stop out there in the middle of 'nowhere' to take a leak.....and lock myself out.   
Mar 13, 2013 1:11PM
This really just isn't that hard.  Remote locks/unlocks should virtually prevent this from happening, as you HAVE to have the key in hand to lock the car with the remote.  Anyone who has a remote key (as just about all newer cars do) and still uses the lock button on the door is therefore asking for trouble.  If you leave the car running with the key in the ignition, that's on you.  And frankly you're asking to get your car stolen in a lot of areas.  Although, if I'm out of the car with the ignition on, I always unroll the driver's window at least enough to get an arm in if needed.  Common sense.

About the only way to lock your keys in (if you're smart and use the remote key as intended) is if you start the car in the winter to warm up and through mechanical or user error the doors lock as you shut them.  I personally have done this by accidentally hitting the lock button as I exited the vehicle (hence now unrolling the window a bit).  But I have NEVER locked myself out at any other time through proper use of the key.

If you have a newer remote/smart key and choose not to use it as intended, it's on you if you lock yourself out of the car.  If you have an older car with a normal key, this of course doesn't apply.  But the story also isn't about older cars.

Although, on another note, why do they have a story about smart keys (a feature of new-ish cars) and couple it with a picture of a vintage Beetle being towed?  I doubt a 60's Beetle has a smart key.

Mar 13, 2013 4:09PM
Didn't even mention the BIG problem--the variable auto-locking schemes with these so-called smart keys. If it were really smart, the car would refuse to auto-lock the doors with the key inside the car, but some will auto-lock the door even if the key is in the ignition! This is basically bad programming (and I've seen a lot of that,since I'm a programmer who has to fix other peoples' code).
Mar 13, 2013 2:32PM
@ $LoveofMoney,   I wholeheartedly AGREE.....!!   We have been "Dumbing down" for some time now!  It's just now taking this long for PEOPLE to wake up !!! That's why we are in this situation.  That's the way the government wants it !
Mar 13, 2013 2:33PM
Mar 13, 2013 3:14PM
Mar 13, 2013 2:02PM

Family member has a car with a smart key... His house has two driveways... one on the lower side of the house that leads to his garage, and a circular garage that goes to the front door (it's a corner house, built on a slope, so the driveways, though fairly close together, are on different streets/elevtions).


He pulled out of the garage and was heading for his appointment when he realized he forgot something.  Turned around and, instead of pulling back into the garage (lower driveway) and having to walk up stairs, completely across house, he pulled into the circular driveway left the car running and went in through the front door (using his key, which was in his pocket because he didn't need to use it in the ignition)...


Out of sheer habit, he tossed his keys on the counter... didn't even realize he was doing it.  Got what he needed, pushed to lock on the front door, got in his car and left.


Several hours later, as he was heading back to his car to start it he realized what he had done... had to wait a couple of hours for his wife to bring him the keys...


Not saying who it was, but he learned a lesson...

Mar 13, 2013 5:00PM
Mar 13, 2013 8:15PM
If you subscribe to OnStar they will remotely unlock you car for free.  Too bad there isn't a smartphone app where I could do it myself.
Mar 13, 2013 2:51PM

Just because someone can invent some fancy-schmancy techno gadget....


We do not need this bull shoved down our throats.


C'mon car companies ...nobody needs this crap !

Keys and ignition switches is all anyone needs.

At least have ''plain jane'' as an orderable option

Mar 13, 2013 4:11PM
smart keys would sense there's nobody in the friggin' car. the key is no smarter than a goldfish.
Mar 13, 2013 2:39PM
When I bought my 2011 Town & Country, it didn't have a second remote key, for some reason, and I saw right away the potential for trouble. Get on Ebay and look for a vendor that can sell you another remote entry like the one you already have. They're quite a bit cheaper than letting the dealer shaft you, but you HAVE to use the dealer to get it programmed, unfortunately. When you walk in, they'll look at the second remote and immediately say, "Well, that might not take the programming." DO NOT let them get away with it. All they want to do is sell you one of their remote keys. MAKE them try programming it. I got the same run-around and I stood firm. I got an OEM remote key from a gret vendor on Ebay. The dealer, of course, charged me nearly 60 bucks to program it, but it works like a charm. I bought a key clip that will let you carry your key on a belt loop and I live the other in the vehicle. Both have another key that also has to be cut by the dealer to open your doors, but it WILL NOT start your vehicle. It WILL get you inside, should the battery in your key go dead, though. Don't get pushed around by the dealer, and don't pay an outrageous price for a second remote key. Look elsewhere first.
Mar 13, 2013 1:21PM
A man and his bug. It is not the key or the phone that is smart, it is what you have to be to possess it.
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