AA Buyer's Guide: unlocking the secrets of key technology
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The key to successfully unlocking a vehicle may no longer be what you’re used to.
Even within the last 20 years, manufacturers have taken huge strides in engineering to make entering, starting and exiting vehicles as effortless as possible. There have also been significant technological advances to help deter car thieves.
But exactly how much has the trusty car key evolved?
Believe it or not, the first cars on the road didn't have keys. They were turned on through a complex set of actions, and few people really understood the process.
In 1910, the first car key was used, but only to lock and unlock the ignition. Starting a car still required a driver to crank the engine, and it wasn't until the late 1940s that Chrysler debuted a key that used an ignition tumbler to start the car.
To open a car door early on, car locks were cylinder design, similar to the same found on house doors (think Mr Bean’s Mini!). These locks were all mechanical with no electronic aspects like pin tumblers and wafer tumblers. It was easy for manufacturers to create keys with these kinds of locks, but it was also easy for car thieves to pick the lock and break into the car.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, manufacturers began using central locking systems, which negated the need to walk around the car and lock every single door. Also during this time, cars began using transponder keys, which contain a chip in the key fob that talks to the automobile's computer so the ignition will start. This strategy helped to combat car thievery, as the thieves needed the physical keys to take the car.
As technology continued to progress, transponder keys then became remote keys, which have buttons on them such as lock, unlock, open the boot, and a car alarm/immobiliser. This allowed vehicle owners to lock/unlock their car from a distance and also turn on the alarm in the event something happened and they needed to alert bystanders.
The smart key, which almost all new cars today come with, doesn't even need a button to be pressed to open doors, you just need to be standing within a certain radius. Similarly, to start the ignition it just needs to be inside the car.
Tesla and BMW both have an option of a small credit-card-sized RFID card that you can use to access and drive the car, (if you know exactly where to hold the key card, that is). Some Tesla models even open the door for you as you approach the car.
Tesla was the first manufacturer to allow the owner’s smartphone to be used as the key, and now others are starting to follow suit.
In July 2020, Ford announced the introduction of FordPass Connect into New Zealand cars, which allows you to lock/unlock your car, start/stop it remotely as well as monitoring certain variables like fuel level and tyre pressure from your smartphone.
BMW has offered an Android smartphone key for some time. But also in July this year Apple announced the BMW Digital Key, which effectively allows drivers of new BMW models to unlock and start their car with their iPhone or Apple Watch using Near Field Communication (NFC) technology. It sits within the Apple Wallet app, which is where iPhone users have been able to make PayWave payments through their phones for the last few years.
If your iPhone happens to run out of battery, you can still unlock and start your vehicle for up to five hours while in “Express Mode”. If you turn your iPhone off manually, the BMW Digital Key will only work once you turn your device back on.
Do you share your car with family members, friends or colleagues? A BMW Digital Key can be sent to up to five other people.
Who knows, in 10 years physical car keys may be a thing of the past.