Your Card Key

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The latest thing is a “key” that isn’t even a fob – the thing which has largely replaced the physical keys that used to be the way you started a car or unlocked its doors, as by inserting them and turning them.

Then along came the fob, which eliminated the need to insert and turn anything. Instead, you carried the fob in your pocket or purse and it unlocked the door by sending a wireless signal to the car announcing your proximity; once behind the wheel, it did the same – unlocking the ignition (and steering column) electronically, so that all you had to do physically was push a button to start the car.

But the fob has its downsides.

The first being its bulk. Keys are lithe things that fit easily and comfortably in one’s pocket. But the fob is a chunk of awkward plastic that can only be slimmed down so much because of the nature of the thing. There are physical electronic components within it and they can only be made so small. That plus the buttons, which one depresses to unlock/lock manual-electronically (like a garage door opener).

Some of these fobs are almost as bulky as a second cell phone and it’s debatable whether the small convenience of not having to insert a key into a lock is outweighed by the inconvenience of having to lug around a fob.

Another downside is fobs have batteries and these have to be replaced periodically. It’s a small hassle but a hassle nonetheless, if you forgot to get fresh batteries. Old-school keys never go dead. Unless you break them, physically, they always work.

But the biggest downside to the fob is its cost to replace. It’s a complicated – and proprietary – piece of technology, usually specific to a given make/model of car.

When a fob wears out, gets damaged, as by running it through the wash or just lost, replacing it is analogous to the situation with waiting five times as long to charge an electric car vs. gassing up one that isn’t. The cost to buy (and have the dealer program) a new fob can be several times the cost of having a new key cut at the hardware store  . . .  and that’s best-case scenario.

A “cheap” aftermarket/generic replacement fob costs around $30 – vs. about $5 to get a replacement old-school key cut. Some factory replacement fobs cost more than $100 and you have to buy some of these at the dealership because there aren’t aftermarket alternatives – because of the proprietary tech within the fob.

Enter the credit card key. A piece of encoded plastic that you can carry in your wallet, as you would a credit card. Or one of those cards they give you at hotels now, to unlock your room – and in fancier hotels, to unlock the elevator (and grant access to in-hotel amenities like the exercise room).

A card has no moving parts to wear out. It starts your car very similarly to the way you use a credit card to gas up your car, as by waving it at the scanner at the pump.

You wave it at the door handle and the lock unlocks. You place it on the center console, on a pad ahead of the gear selector- and the engine is ready to start. Just push the button (same as with a fob).

The upside is obvious. No more fob (though Hyundai, one of the pioneers of this new system, provides one as a back-up) and so no more bulky thing to carry around in your pocket. You’re less likely to run it through the wash, too – unless you forget your wallet in your pants pocket.

Even then, it should be ok as there are no electronics within to short-circuit by getting them wet.

Even better, there is no legitimate reason for the card to to cost more to replace than the discount cards you get for free from chain stores and such that you wave at the scanner to save a few bucks on whatever you’re buying. It’s just a piece of plastic with a scannable code embedded within it.

The worry is it’ll cost more regardless, mainly because the companies making them could charge more – not for the card itself, which after all is just a piece of plastic. But to code/activate it for you, in the event you need a new one.

Because what choice will you have? It’s their electronic hocus-pocus, after all. And it is entirely possible these sort entry/car-start system will become as unavoidable as the fob, which almost all new cars come standard with, making it very hard to avoid if you’re leery.

Another worry is security.

Hyundai’s Digital Key System works with smartphones, which can be used to send an ethereal “key” (no card, even) via an app (provided via the Google Play Store) to another person, anywhere. The problem there is obvious. Cell phones can be hacked and that means the potential, at least, for someone to jack your app – and then, your car.

It is also possible the key cards themselves are hackable, just as credit cards can be hacked. The technology – and so, the vulnerability – is similar.

The sell is, of course, convenience.

The same sell used to sell smartphones – and fobs. Now you can get rid of the fob – and use your phone to not only unlock and start your car but access the car and its systems remotely – in order to do “neat” things like adjust the mirrors and seats, even pre-set the audio and climate controls without actually touching the car at all.

But there’s a cost to all of this neatness  – and it’s arguably a lot more than the $5 it used to cost to get a physical key cut at the hardware store.

. . .

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56 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t find the fob for my new (con)Fusion to necessarily be inconvenient, but it’s maddening at times to switch back-and-forth with the way I’ve been doing it for almost a half century. What really gets me going is that I’ve not been able to figure out how to set the “auto off” feature to always be that way, I just turn it off once I’ve started the car. The other thing that Ford in it’s “wisdom” did is that you can’t turn the vehicle off in neutral…if you do, it will put itself automatically into “Park”, and there’s no way to defeat it. So, when I take that beast through the car wash, I have to leave the engine running. How does THAT help with the so-called “carbon footprint”?

    • Not to mention increase the risk of having the engine ingest water or at minimum water log the air filter. The air intake path does assume you might drive in rain and will allow accumulated water to drain. But these phenomenon which follow the laws of physics with respect to gravity. Forcing water literally up and sideways is probably an exceptional situation and may not have been considered in the design.

  2. Remember when cars were relatively simple to operate and, in many cases, were relatively cheap to maintain?

    Not anymore.

    This is just another example of why some of us despise the newer cars.

  3. I refer to it as “gratuitous complexification” (because more syllables good!) and it seems to be something some people are just prone to. I knew a guy who was very knowledgeable about computer systems, but utterly incapable of answering a yes-no question with fewer than 500 words.

  4. I thought chipped keys were expensive to replace. The kind where the key has to have a chip in it if it’s going to work, which can range up to over $100 to replace. Until I had one of those proximity keys, where it just needs to be in the neighborhood for the door locks and ignition to operate. I only had one working “key”, the car being a used one and the previous owner apparently losing the spare. The car could be operated by a manual key, which was one that inserted into the proximity key fob. I approached the dealer for a spare fob type, and the price tag was over $300. I asked if a conventional style chipped key could be made to replace it, one that would actually work on a key ring, unlike the one in the fob. “NO”. Another of an abundance of instances of a solution looking for a problem.

    • Chipped keys or fobs shouldn’t be all that expensive to replace…but the “Stealership” smells profit, so until the aftermarket can get to them, you’re stuck for one expensive bill if you have to replace one. Try, in 2015, about $500 for one for my then-2014 Ford Focus. One went up with the house fire. Fortunately, I kept its companion at my son’s house, for reasons I won’t elaborate upon, and I just made do with that one until I got rid of the damned thing.

  5. Rented a car once that had a fob, you don’t feel complete, something is missing.

    Fobs are a pain, I would rather use a key and the ignition. Makes more sense. You feel as though you are in control, not the crazy fob.

    I have come to the conclusion that mask wearers are totally insane, gone bonkers.

    I’m gonna make a mask using a fig leaf. Millions will sell like hotcakes. Those mask wearers are nuts, they’ll do anything to follow along to stay in line. March, you fools!

    They must miss the good old days of being tethered at the daycare.

  6. Welcome to the Rube Goldberg society. I guarantee you someone 30 years from now will be complaining about TELEPATHY being “inconvenient”.

  7. I hate the wireless fobs. When I was stuck in a rental a little while back, keeping the bulky thing on me was irritating because it did not incorporate itself into my key existing keys. But still not as irritating as the automatic engine start/stop thing that automatically engaged every time you started the vehicle with no way to tell it to “stay off until I turn you on” ability. (Warning: run-on sentence rant ahead) I found that that has annoyed me so much that when I am at a traffic signal and the light turns green, that when I hear someone else’s vehicle do an auto start, I get flashbacks to the days when the rental would just die every time after I started it at the first stop I made because I could never remember to turn off the auto stop/start before I pulled away. It’s annoying even without me having it on my vehicles now just because it reminds me of getting pissed off every time the engine died on that rental and pressing the switch with extreme prejudice to turn it off. So when the author asks if it is done to annoy, I say emphatically, YES!

    My previous work vehicle (the one that died and put me in the rental mentioned above) had no fob at all but still tech made the key expensive. I had a bare bones van. It did not have electronic locks, it had old school manual locks. I had made a habit of manually locking doors subconsciously as I was closing doors. I feared that one day I would lock my keys in the work vehicle at the worst possible time and had a standard key cut to keep in my wallet should an emergency occur. The guy at the stealership gave me a hard time at first when I told him I just wanted a simple key cut, I didn’t need the one with the chip in it for the ignition. He finally agreed to make me one if I came back later and bought the key with the chip in it for a spare. The real spare was kept in a safe place at home, but would not fit comfortably in a wallet. The flat, all metal, no plastic, no chip key did what it was supposed to do, be cheap insurance. I never needed it, but it was piece-of-mind to have it.

  8. I actually like having a fob. It just stays in a zipper compartment in my purse and I rarely need to even touch it. I don’t miss having to dig for my keys, and I think I’d be doing the same thing with this card since it has to be placed on the center console, as opposed to the fob, which merely needs to be inside the car, whether that be in my purse, pocket or hand.
    I have to use a key card to get in one of the buildings I sometimes go to for work and I can’t ever find it in my bag. The main building where I work has a keypad with a code to punch in … much easier. I could see where guys would like the car card, however, since they usually only have a wallet. It would especially be hard to pocket a fob in those skinny jeans they all wear now.
    One bad thing about keys: I once injured my right thumb playing kickball (bending over to catch a grounder and it slammed into my thumb and pushed the nail back into the nailbed.) It hurt like hell and swelled up twice its normal size. Trying to turn and hold the key in position to start the car (a 2006 model) was very ouchie and there’s not really a good way to do this in any other hand position. I tried turning the ignition holding the key between my first and middle finger, for example, but wasn’t strong enough and couldn’t twist my hand around right to get the leverage to turn and hold down the ignition. Ditto trying to use my left hand. The ignition in my old car required a fully functioning opposable thumb on one’s right hand since you had to be in the seat pushing the clutch in to start it. It got me thinking about people with arthritis or having to wear a cast or a splint. You’d essentially be locked out of your car in the old days.

    • By your logic, if one sprains one’s ankle, they can’t operate the brakes, so cars should automatically brake for you at a 100% level? As one who has rheumatoid arthritis, I’m well acquainted with pain reducing my ability to operate an abundance of devices. Including manually operated can openers, and cars. The only way to correct for such inability is to make the car perfectly “autonomous”, with an additional assistant device to help me even get into the car. That way I can simply walk up to the car, and the car will install me in the seat, fasten my seatbelt for me, start and drive without any input from me, other than telling it where I want to go. That is, if the “car” approves of where I want to go, and whether I have had a “vaccine”, and who I voted for. or if I voted at all, etc. That is not a world I wish to live in. I far prefer to suffer pain and keep my liberty. The pain of tyranny far exceeds that of starting your car with a damaged digit. I would far prefer gritting my teeth and bearing the pain.

  9. One of the simple pleasures I enjoy when taking the wife out in the old 70’s muscle car; unlocking and opening her door for her like the good ol days. Now what are you going to do? “Here, babe. Let me click this button for you.”

  10. my BIL has a model 3 which has this key card thing. You need to put it on the centre console to make it start. – The amount of times hes on his knees upside down trying to find and then fish the damn card out of the slot between the seat and the centre console….. and given his kid likes to chew on it – I dont see it lasting very long….

  11. I’m was looking to get another bike, going with something from the 70’s. Points, carbs, easy to keep running. Have a 1949 Farmall cub on the property, same thing. I had a 1981 HD sportster years ago and put the points conversion kit on it and scrapped the electronic ignition. Was replacing the damn black box at 100.00 a pop once a year. Never had any ignition problems after I did that.

  12. I have a mid 90s truck with a ‘autostart/lock/unlock’ fob. The truck is great but since I bought it 5 years ago it has had one continuous problem. Every week or two the engine just stops. Restart and it is fine for a couple more weeks.

    But a month ago it started doing it three or four times every trip I make. So I started trying to find the problem. Tracked it down to the ‘hood interlock wire’. Wiggle it and the truck ‘chirps’ like the doors were locked by the FOB. Cut wire, ground it and the no more stalling out.

    That was a simple system. God knows how screwed up these new ‘chassis computer/CANBUS’ vehicles will be in 25 years. Ah, but then the turbos, CVT, 10 speeds and DI will have rendered them economically scrap by then…….

  13. You know for sure the stealership is gonna charge at least the same amount for the card that they do for a fob. Probably put on a $500 “processing fee” too like they all do on the car deals these days.

  14. Cars have become the poster children for taking once simple and perfectly functional products which were at the apex of their user-friendliness, durability, and value, and making them needlessly complex, and non-durable, while adding no benefits but in-fact rather being detrimental. I WILL NOT HAVE ANY OF IT!

    There is just no reason for any of this nonsense….other than to annoy us…take more of our money, make us less functional/less self-reliant, take away control over the things we supposedly own, and to control and track our behavior.

    Star-Wars technology….but it can’t beat a simple key!

    It utterly disgusts me! It’s over-engineering taken to the level of absurdity.

    Heh, I remember back in the 90’s when I had my Town Car- It had the little buttons on the driver’s door for keyless entry…I never used it once. Didn’t have a fob for that car either…the good ol’ key worked perfectly fine. Have people become so delicate that they can’t put a key in a lock and turn? DAMN it disgusts me!

    It’d be like replacing your bathroom mirror with a monitor and a camera…..

    • Hiya Nunz,
      Absolutely! All this high tech garbage is in direct violation of the KISS rule; what could be simpler than a basic key? Also if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Can’t have that though, as Eric mentioned you can get a key made pretty much anywhere so why go to the stealership. Plus now govco can access your car and NOT let you start/drive it if you’re on their shitlist. Would be disappointed if I wasn’t on that one 😝

      • Just think though, if you have a manual trans and real key, your car is now 99% theft proof. “where are the start and drive buttons?”

        Today’s world is now a hybrid of Wall-E and Idiocracy.

    • Software people Nunz. Software people.
      And to a lesser extent electrical engineers.
      They like this constant change for change’s sake and over complexity, because it isn’t that much effort for them and it keeps them employed. If their stuff stays the same then most of them wouldn’t have a job.

      Mechanical engineers, we still make a living keeping product costs down. Everything we re-use and keep the same helps us meet our goals. Sure new parts keeps us employed too but so does being clever enough to reuse a part that’s been purchased, made, and/or assembled for the last 25 years.

    • Keyless entry is only useful for fools that have a habit of locking their keys in the car.

      Other features that are useless and counterintuitive are power folding rear seats and power liftgates/trunks. The process actually takes longer versus doing it manually!

      • Hi Handler,

        Don’t get me started on the “Gimp Gate” – i.e., the electrically opening/closing – eventually – liftgate. If you’re an actual gimp,ok – I get it. Some people can’t open and close the gate. But if you’re normally abled, these things are exasperating. As you note, simple open – or close – in seconds – is now a glacial ballet of saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety, in many case, accompanied by the Idiot Beeper.

        Makes me feel the urge to rack a slug into my Sig and teach it a lesson…

    • It reminds me of a piece I read several years ago. NASA spent millions developing an ink pen that would work in zero G. The Russians just used pencils.

      • Not true. Fisher developed the pressurized space pen at its own expense in the 1960s, then NASA bought some. Later the Russians bought pens from Fisher too.

      • There was a REASON for that, NASA had indeed just asked, why not just use a damn pencil? Even a mechanical one that didn’t require an archaic sharpener would have been ok. Answer: it goes back to the early capsules having a 100% pure oxygen environment, to enable them to use a lower pressure. Worked fine…until Jan 27, 1967, when Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom and his two companions for the Apollo 1 mission were testing a command module…with it fully pressurized with that pure O2…and a FIRE broke out. Awful thing, those poor men were WELL DONE. The idea of using pencils was nixed for fear that fine grains of carbon would SPONTAENOUSLY IGNITE in that pure oxygen environment, but funny how the idea that it was too damned dangerous, period, never occurred to NASA? By the time the Apollo mission components were re-designed to use normal air, the money for the funky, pressurized pens had already been spent.

    • Hi Nunzio,
      The simple superiority of a real key reminds me of an interesting observation by the publisher of a local newspaper in the early days of get-everything-over-the-internet. What if digital delivery of news articles had been invented first, long before the printing press?
      Everybody has been squinting, scrolling, clicking and tapping to read the news their entire lives. Then one day, some guy figures out how to print words on a substance called “paper,” and then he hires kids to roll them up and throw them in your yard every morning.
      Everybody would think it was the greatest invention ever: portable, easy to find the page you want, doesn’t break if you drop it on the concrete, and no batteries to go dead. How did we ever get by without it?

  15. At my first job at 16, a couple of us high school kids got mad at the boss and we super glued his door locks on his car in the parking lot as we left for the night. He told us later he had to break the window to drive it home.

  16. The card key is likely an rfid chip. These have been used in antitheft keys for decades so hyundais idea is actually pretty good compared to the fob foolery. I still like the idea of a physical key more. With all the touch screens in cars these days why can’t they be used with a pin or password? Ford has had the pin pad keyless entry since the 90’s so how have they not programmed this in yet?

  17. My big worry is what happens as all of this largely proprietary tech ages and needs replacement.

    I like unnecessary complexity, it’s fun- my cars with heads up displays, my cars with poop up headlights, etc. But they’re expensive to repair even though they’re old tech.

    Some of this new tech will be a big problem to, first of all source, and second of all afford.

    Plus the potential to just have your car bricked if you do x, y or z. I don’t like that kind of connectivity.

    I rented a new car a month back and enjoyed the tech- keyless ignition and all that.

    But when I got back into my old Pontiacs, I felt like I was home. That new stuff just doesn’t appeal to me.

    But then again, I’m old.

    • “poop up headlights” (unintentionally accurate?)

      You own a Fiero? 🙂

      Just replaced both headlight motors on mine….. again.

      • Which is the major reason I have always avoided vehicles that have them. And probably why few cars are made with them. There used to be a lot more of them, and it probably isn’t so, since one notices failures far more quickly than proper operation, but it seemed that most of them on the road had the one eye closed look going on.

        • At least with the Fiero it was GM engineers so they knew they would fail and included a ‘hand crank’ wheel so you could manually deploy them. But the motors going bad would overload the circuit and blow the tail lights.

          At least the units are easy to replace and the nylon mechanism that fails is a 1 hour and $12 fix. I just keep a spare motor rebuilt and swap fix as required.

          Still a stupid system, more complex than required.

        • Pedestrian impact standards in Europe killed off pop-up headlamps ~20 years ago. That was the real reason Chevrolet went to fixed lamps on the C6 Corvette, as GM wanted to sell the car in Europe.

  18. ‘The fob has its downsides. The first being its bulk.’ — EP

    Yep. Because it’s too bulky for a pocket, I tote one fob and some other keys on a carabiner attached to a belt loop, despite it making me look like a curmudgeonly janitor. Driving the other vehicle means switching fobs.

    There’s got to be a better way. And it sure ain’t carrying a man purse. Bill Gates’ way would be to embed a universal chip in our hand. Sorry, Bill … NO.

    Meanwhile, check out this chart. Used car prices popped like a freaking jack-in-the-box last month:

    https://publish.manheim.com/content/dam/consulting/ManheimUsedVehicleValueIndex-LineGraph.png

    Now imagine what gratuitous $1,400 stimmy checks are gonna do. Same result as last summer, I reckon.

    Pray that our insane warmunist overlords don’t enact cash-for-clunkers to help poor Elon counter Tesla’s worrying stock price collapse. Then used vehicles will become as rare and pricey as vintage classics. 🙁

  19. My wife tells me not to lose her fob for her 2007 Mistsubishi Outlander because they are $600 to replace. (It does have a key backup in an emergency which might be coming soon.)

    • Hi Hans,

      Yup!

      Meanwhile, the factory GM key for my ’76 TA still unlocks and starts the car… almost 50 years after it was cut. And I can get a duplicate cut for about $5.

      • Plus they can normally cut that key right now too, so you may be walking back out with a fresh key then and there. Doesn’t matter if the car is hundred, thirty or fifty years old either.

  20. Two words – no way. OK, make that three words – no f!$@#ing way. I have a somewhat beat-up 2010 Ford Escape that I intend to keep limping along for as long as possible. No major issues with it, about 135K miles, and I rent when I go on long road trips, so I should be able to keep it going for as long as I need to. And no fob or card. Any other vehicle I buy in the future (likely a pickup truck) will be used with no fob, even if I have to settle on a somewhat older vehicle.

  21. I agree

    I have one of those fobs – one.
    if I lose it, that will be one hell of an inconvenience.

    But the cost of a “backup” fob is too high to justify it.

    No idea why manufacturers went this direction, but it is much less convenient and customer friendly than an old fashioned key.

      • Bingo, it’s to get us folks that never would go to the stealership for “service” once the warranty is up. Up until recently most people probably NEVER thought about using a car dealer for out of warranty repairs, because why would you?

        • My 2018 Renault Duster has about 24K kilometers (<15K miles) after over two years. Ain't much driving to do in tiny Uruguay. After getting a stealership quote for 20K service – something like $400 – I read the actual services provided and took it to a local mechanic to do the necessary and not charge me for raising and lowering the hood. Needless to say, for a fraction of the cost.

          • Hi Barry,

            Yup!

            Much of the “recommended service” described in the owner’s literature for new cars for the first five years or so is of the “check this” variety – which is sometimes used as a way to make it appear forbidding and also to get you in there, so they can sell you something – often for more than you’d pay to have it done elsewhere. Due diligence and caveat emptor can avoid the worst of this…

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