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Lost your car key? That'll be $400

The 'smart key' technology has its advantages. Cheap replacement is not one of them.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 22, 2013 10:26AM

Logo: A young man buying a new car (i love images, Cultura, Getty Images)Misplace your keys often? Better break yourself of that habit if your next auto has "smart key" technology.

A smart key isn't really a key, but rather a small device that transmits a code to the car's onboard computer. Your vehicle recognizes that it's you and starts up at the press of a button. This makes your car a lot harder to steal.

Unfortunately, it also provides "new opportunities for motorists to feel stupid," writes Matt Schmitz on the blog, Kicking Tires.


Schmitz cites "forehead-slapping situations" like not knowing how to turn off the car quickly in an emergency, or forgetting to turn it off before getting out (which in a closed garage could lead to a potentially fatal buildup of carbon monoxide).

And if you lose your key, replacing it might cost as much as your monthly car payment.

"With a smart key, there's no avoiding the dealership for a replacement," writes Ronald Montoya in  a post on


Since there's no competition from ordinary locksmiths, the dealers can charge whatever they like. And they do: A quick search online shows prices ranging from $200 to $400 or more to buy and reprogram a lost key. Maybe a lot more, if you need to have the car towed to the dealer so that another key can be programmed.

Locked out

Here's another "d'oh!" moment: You lock the door and then realize that the smart key is on the passenger seat or fell out of your bag onto the floor of the car. Don't have a spare smart key on you? Hurry up and wait while someone brings it, or pay for a cab ride home to get it yourself.

That is, assuming you have a spare. A guy I know has misplaced one of the two keys provided when he bought the car. If he loses the other one, or locks himself out, well, d'oh!

The American Automobile Association reports having responded to 4 million lockouts in 2012. It's not known how many of those were smart-key vehicles. However, AAA spokeswoman Ginnie Pritchett points out that while the number of smart-key vehicles on the road has increased, the number of annual lockouts hasn't.

Another smart-key concern is that some of these vehicles can be turned off whether or not their automatic transmissions have been put into "park." This has caused injuries from vehicle rollaways, according to The New York Times. Auto theft and carbon monoxide poisoning are also possibilities.

Seven of 11 vehicles tested by Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) can be shut off while the gearshift is in "neutral" or "drive." The cars give both electronic and audible warnings that the transmission is not in "park," which led a CU spokesman to say it was not "too much of an issue." Of course, that assumes that the driver can hear an audible warning and/or pay attention to a visual one.

At some point smartphones could replace smart keys. Hyundai recently announced a design that will let drivers unlock and start cars with their phones, a technology that may be available by 2015.

'Motorists will need to adapt'
But what if you want to avoid smart technology altogether? Couldn't you just opt for brands that sell old-school metal keys?

For a while, maybe, but traditional car keys "will likely become obsolete" over time, according to AAA's John Nielsen. Better just to train ourselves to be more careful with the technology.

"Motorists will need to adapt with the technology to avoid the hassle and expense of smart key replacements," says Nielsen, director of automotive engineering and repair.

No matter what kind of key you use right now, writer Montoya cautions against "tempting fate" by having just one key, smart or otherwise. "Consider this: If you lose all the keys to your car, you will need to get it towed to a dealership and it can potentially cost you close to $1,000 to replace the locks on your car."

That does not sound smart.

So be careful with the high-tech stuff, and if you're using metal keys get an extra couple of copies made: one to leave at home and one with a relative or trusted friend. Better make an extra one for the couch cushions to eat, too.

Do you use smart key technology? Any tips to share?

More on MSN Money:

Apr 22, 2013 9:01PM
I'm not a fan of the smart key, and did just fine with a regular key!  It seems like another excuse for the dealers to pocket our money by inventing something we don't need in the first place.
Apr 22, 2013 2:11PM
i know a guy who started his new car to warm up and went back in the house to change before leaving for an out of town trip. 300 miles later when he stopped for gas he realized his smart key was in his other jacket back at the house....
Apr 22, 2013 12:48PM
"This makes your car a lot harder to steal" 100% NOT true. Thieves have already broken the code for a lot of 2012 model year electronic keys. I know because two of my cars were gotten into this way. They will break the code on these as well if they have not already.
Apr 22, 2013 2:29PM
I just bought a car with smart key technology, and when told the price of a replacement I almost choked.  But, knowing how much it cost, I am 10x more careful of not losing/misplacing it than I ever was with a regular key.  So far, so good.  Now, if I could just get into the same mindset with my wallet, cellphone, receipts, sunglasses, etc., etc.  
Apr 27, 2013 5:17PM
As a locksmith who does it , I can tell you most smart keys and transponder keys can be originated and duplicated by a qualified automotive locksmith. They're are a few exceptions.  The dealers would have you believe that's its " Dealer Only ", but that's simply not true.  You can save the cost and inconvenience of a tow ,  and usually the overall cost is less by calling a locksmith.
Apr 22, 2013 3:38PM
I work for Mercedes-Benz and can confirm that their cars will not lock if the key is still inside the vehicle, so the lockout scenario is not a possibility. Even if you try locking the car with the second key, if the first remains inside it will not lock. The majority of these issues could be eliminated quite easily by the manufacturers, except for maybe the high cost of a replacement.
Apr 25, 2013 7:26PM
What upset me was I got a rental car from enterprise,  they warn you on the key tag that if you lose the key, the cost of a smart key replacement is $250, and what do they do, they have the spare also on a non removable key ring so that way if you lose it you lost 2 keys. How stupid is that! (Note: I did not loose the key.)
Apr 25, 2013 2:56PM
Most locksmiths that specialize in automotive security can provide additional  and replacement smart keys. They also can unlock vehicles that have been locked with a smart key.
May 3, 2013 4:29PM
smart key ,onlt as smart as its owner .
May 6, 2014 8:21PM
Apr 27, 2013 5:25PM
Realize one benefit of smart keys and transponders is that they have pretty much eliminated "old fashioned" car theft.   Notice the difference in lock police reports ..., compared to years ago ?
The downside is it's cost when you need to replace it.  At least it has some value.  Who really needs a heated, painted, lighted, power operated rear view mirror with a directional signal in it ?  Have you got an estimate to replace one of those lately ??
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