Arrive Alive

Car Keys, Lost Keys and Vehicle Security

Car Keys, Lost Keys and Vehicle SecurityDon't you just love the feeling when you receive the keys to your new car? But what is it that you love about it? It's not the actual keys unless you're driving a very premium brand, right? It's the freedom, the joy, the power, the excitement, the smell, and the beauty associated with getting a new car that anyone fortunate enough to experience it thrives on!

Most of us receive our keys to our next or new vehicle without giving much actual thought to the keys themselves. Unless they're from a premium brand - like Jaguar - of course. Then the key is much more than a tool to access your vehicle. They become a status symbol. They embody your achievements, your pride, joy, and social standing.

But keys are more than just that and, while you give little thought to them other than when you show your friends or your new love interest, they are much more than mere keys, these days! Now imagine losing them! As you run your routine through your mind, trying to trace your steps and while your mind races to find your car keys, alternatives, or the last place you had them, let's pause and consider those trinkets of freedom. How screwed are you really?

There was a time when car keys were a lot like house keys. It was a device that could be used to overcome a mechanical barrier to entry. Unless you had the right key, you could not unlock the door. But then criminals started to simply bypass the barrier by removing or breaking a quarter window - remember those days?

Car Keys and the Car Alarm

Then someone came up with the idea of a car alarm. It could be installed into various vehicles and those vehicles were then able to make a sound and call attention when the doors are opened and later when motion or movement was detected inside.

But you could simply cut the siren or horn wire and still drive off with the car, as long as you could "hot wire" it. Thieves are extremely innovative, that way. The reward for breaching the security is multi-faceted: You get the car and the income from selling it or its parts and the bragging rights for having "found a way to bypass the system."

Then manufacturers started making better keys with more complex and stronger locks. Now you could only drive the car away if you had the correct physical key. But it was still a mechanical barrier and soon enough people found ways to cut, cast or clone car keys. This meant that they could still steal cars - even when the keys are better. Remember the days when you asked: "have you still got both keys?" Who wanted to buy a car to which someone else still had a key, right?

Increased Security and Immobilizers

Again, manufacturers adapted to make their brands "more secure" by upgrading to the so-called "immobilizer" systems. This meant that you could not start the vehicle unless you had the correct key that was correctly programmed to unlock the vehicle and the vehicle electronics. Remember the "immobilizer" days? In those cases, the key had to be "programmed" to the car, but again - almost anyone could "code a key" if they had the correct equipment.

Fast-forward to 2021 and by now keys are not mechanical at all anymore. They're electronic. As anyone who has ever tried to replace a key these days will tell you, the cost can be exorbitant" Thousands or tens of thousands, even. Losing a key is no longer a joke, as a friend of mine found out recently...

Case Scenario: Lost Keys

When John lost his car keys on a business trip to a major city, he had no idea where this minor oversight will take him (I changed his name to protect his identity and to save him embarrassment). He doesn't drive a premium brand at all, but he is still the proud owner of a German brand. You'd think that keys are "not that expensive" and if you lose them, you could "get another one," right? Not so easy, it turns out.

By the time John had realized he had misplaced his car keys, the regular options were not available. Because he was away in another city, he couldn't just ride-share home to fetch a spare key or go home and have the problem sorted in the morning. He was at a restaurant in a mall, after hours, and had to find a solution rather quickly.

He thought - like most people do - that you should "call a guy," as he did. While the guy was able to come out immediately, it turns out that he also had to open John's car and actually strip the dashboard to access the "console." While he could supply a key and while John could access the car now, the key simply could not work and the car would not start.

John abandoned the effort for the night and returned to his hotel, only to be informed that a security guard had found his keys. He had his original key back. But now he had another issue: The warning lights on his dash had lit up like Christmas lights. He approached a dealer to have the system "reset" and learned that he was in for a bill of R70,000.00 because his "guy" had apparently tried to "bypass the console," so the whole thing had to be replaced!

John had no idea that "replacing a key" could cost him almost as much as replacing the actual car! But why is this? Why are car keys so expensive to replace and what should you do if you lose your keys to your modern vehicle? As John learned, there's no "short-cut" really, anymore. It all comes down to technology, in the end.

The Car Key as a "wireless transmitter" 

The thing that people are not aware of is that vehicle security has had to develop so far that  - to put it all in simple terms - the key has now become a "wireless transmitter." This transmitter contains a set of highly encrypted codes that are linked to the vehicle's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and married to the vehicle electronics, which include the Key Controller Unit, the Engine Controller Unit, the Ignition System, and the Instrument Cluster.

The Key Controller first has to "handshake" with the key. It has to receive the correct "access code" to allow the key to transmit information to the Instrument Cluster. The Instrument Cluster is also programmed to the vehicle, to ensure that the vehicle mileage cannot be manipulated and that the driver feedback displays are not activated. 

If the key and the Key Controller are in sync, the pathway to the instrument cluster and the engine control unit is opened. Since the key and all the other electronic components are all married around the VIN Number and unique security code for that vehicle, the system will become active and the fuel pump, fuel injectors, spark plugs and other engine control functions can operate.

This can be compared to your vehicle key being your "bank card." You cannot simply use any bank card to access any bank account. You must have a card from the correct banking institution, your data has to be current on the card, it has to be active, you have to know the PIN Code, and you have to have money in your account.

If you lose your card, you have to go to the bank to get a replacement card. Changing the ATM Machine will no help, and trying to bypass the bank security will simply not be good enough.

Because of the "fiddling" that had taken place with his instrument cluster, while he could use the vehicle and while it can be unlocked, started and driven, he still had a warning light on his dashboard. The system is now aware that all security protocols have not been satisfied and some additional programming was required.

In this case, John's original key was eventually re-programmed at key specialists with the kind assistance of a nearby dealership for a mere R1,000.00.

Care for your Keys

If you have a modern car with an electronic, coded, security key and you lose your keys - you might be in for much more than "the price of a key." The best way to avoid this terrible situation would be to look after your keys as you would a brand new cell phone - which is probably cheaper than your key, anyway. Rather store your secondary key safely and only take it with you on long trips, and make a conscious effort to ensure that you always have your keys with you, when you drive regularly. A good idea might be to attach an interesting or entertaining key holder that you can carry around in your hand. Soon enough, this will become a habit and you will immediately become aware if it's not with you. Smokers might consider attaching a cigarette lighter to their keys!

The technology is more complicated than this explanation suggests, but it explains the reasons why John was exposed to so much inconvenience, how challenging it can become if you lose your keys, and what the associated costs might be - if this ever happened to you.

Lost Keys and Car Insurance 

It is important to keep in mind that most Car Insurance policies do offer cover for the costs of having to replace your car keys. As important is however to recognize that there is usually a limit of cover prescribed, i.e. up to a maximum of R2500 of cover. With the keys becoming so specialized these days, this will in many instances only cover a portion of the costs. It might be worthwhile, for a small additional premium, to increase the amount that you may be covered for. 

Feel free to share your lost-key story with us!

Stan Bezuidenhout is a Military Veteran, a former Specialist Police Serervist, an Internationally Experienced Crash Specialist and Court Expert, a widely published author, and an inimitable Trainer with more than 20 years' experience in the Road and Transport Safety and Crash Investigation environment. Stan has made many appearances on a variety of Television Reality and News Programs, on Live Radio Shows, and at many conferences and events. After spending most of two years in the USA, Stan has returned to South Africa permanently, to share his vast and expansive knowledge and to help grow the Expert Witness Industry in Africa.

To learn more about Stan, to get in touch, or to follow his public activity, please visit:

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