Vehicle Safety to Ignition Control : Manual -> Wireless -> Digital

Adhish Velingkar
12 min readMay 3, 2022

If you have ever been in a situation where you have forgotten or lost your car keys?— Well, then you are in the right space here to explore the evolution and technology of the car keys!

Zombieland Reference

While the car key may appear to be an earthly topic to discuss(rule #32), but the records in the back of this top-notch tool are truly pretty interesting.

So let’s get started right away to have a good history lesson!

What are car keys and their history?

It’s a small device that we as drivers often take for granted, but it offers us a lot. For starters, without them, we wouldn’t be able to turn on the ignition, engage the starter and ignite the fire that brings our car’s engine to life.

But modern key fobs can do much more. You can open and close the trunk automatically, unlock and lock the doors without having to turn the key in the door lock, allow the driver to unlock the doors simply by touching the handle or pressing any button other than the key, start the car by pressing a button instead of using the car key.

Tracking back:

Tiny in size but very powerful and useful. While technology has taken over every aspect of our lives, car keys have grown and evolved in every aspect imaginable since their inception. This makes us think about how the concept and physical nature of car keys have changed. Well, here we discuss some key instances in history that played a vital role in giving car keys the variations,

Compilation of various car keys
  • In 1910 the first type of car key came into the market. It would lock out the vehicle’s electrical circuit, meaning the driver’s wrists and arms would still be at risk from the cranks, but not for long, because by the 1920s starting a vehicle had become much easier: a push of a button was all it took and the engine jumped
  • Development of the car key took a back seat until 1949 when Chrysler Corporation invented an alternative to the push-button start: a key that started the engine when inserted into the ignition lever. It was more like a house key and could only slide into the jar one side up as it only had one cutting edge.
Chrysler Vintage
  • In 1965, Ford went one step better by introducing an ignition key that instead of being just single-sided like the original Chrysler key, had cuts on both sides of the blade so drivers could insert it into the tumbler either way up. But that was just the ignition key.

Back then, cars were sold with two different types of keys: square-headed keys which started the car, while oval-headed keys opened doors, trunks, and glove compartments.

  • In 1986, Chevrolet’s vehicle anti-theft system. It included a coded resistor with one of 15 different values ​​in the key to make his popular Corvettes more difficult to steal. The resistance would touch two contacts in the ignition cylinder and if it was the right value the car would start. This system worked so well that it became standard on many makes and models of General Motors vehicles. To know more about VATS one can refer to the guide made by LOCKMASTERS INCORPORATED.
Mechanism of Tibbe
  • In 1990 Jaguar introduced the Tibbe key. Instead of the usual flat-bladed, edge-cut, or side-winding keys, Tibbes had a cylindrical shank with end cuts six or more times at four different depths. Ford also adopted the Tibbe key format for a number of years. When a tibbe car key needs to be replaced, the replacement process is twofold. Firstly, a new tibbe key will need to be ordered. Following this, a mechanic will need to program the new tibbe key to your vehicle. While this isn’t the most commonly used car key today, it’s a highly secure option!

In the same year, the Lexus LS400 was the first vehicle that needed a key specially cut by laser, while the Mercedes Benz SL was delivered with a “Switchblade” button that flipped out of a remote-locking key fob — a concept now widely copied throughout the automotive trade.

  • In 1993, still aiming to make Corvettes less tempting to thieves, General Motors’ passive keyless entry system would lock and unlock its doors simply by recognizing the nearby key fob… but always still had to use a separate key to start the engine.
  • From 1995 central locking became more common and by this time UK car manufacturers were legally required to fit immobilizers on their factory vehicles. The key’s transponder chip code and the code programmed into the vehicle must match exactly, even if the key fits perfectly into the ignition cylinder; otherwise the engine will not start.

Some more facts about immobilizer:

  • In 1999, keyless locking systems were introduced that not only locked and unlocked car doors but also transported drivers in the early 20th century when all you had to do was push a button to start your car’s engine.
Mercedes Benz SL 2003 Smart Go Card
  • Back in 2003, the Mercedes-Benz smart card seemed like a good idea at the time: it was a fully functional proximity key that fits in a wallet like a credit card. But unlike a credit card, which can endure a certain amount of flexing and sitting when the wallet is in a back pocket, the smart card just didn’t have the flexibility to survive in a wallet.
Lexus Smart Access Card Key
  • In 2004, Lexus introduced its first smart card and still offers it as an accessory, it’s available on the IS 350, ES 300h and 350, LS 500, LX 570, RC 350 Blackline and RC F, and the LC 500 Inspiration Series. AND it will be available on the new 2022 NX as well!!

MY PERSONAL FAVORITE:

BMW Series 7 Display Key
  • Since 2016, the BMW 7 Series Display Key’s LCD touchscreen can control vehicle functions from a distance of up to 300 meters. From this distance, owners can open the trunk, lock and unlock the doors, and even heat or cool the interior of the car, which is perfect for both summer and winter driving. But that’s not all: in addition to the touchscreen, which displays all sorts of information about the vehicle, it allows the driver to get out and, with a few taps, see how the car is parked better than anyone.

To know more about the display key in-depth, read out this amazing blog by Bimmer tech:

  • In 2018, Tesla brought the smartphone app key to its Model 3, which is much more advanced than BMW’s display keys as it works by mimicking a proximity key and comes with a card-style key to help you when you drain your phone’s battery.

Types of Car Keys

After knowing what are car keys and their evolution over the years, I would like to categorise them into different types as they are recognized in the market!

  1. Mechanical Car Keys:

Also known as a traditional car key, it is the simplest type of car key in use today. These keys are typically used by older vehicles that do not have security coding. This type of key can be made with any machine used to cut metal. However, as these keys are the simplest, they are not the most secure. Usually, these keys consist mainly of metal. This means that copies of the key can be made using a variety of methods. Copies of machine-cut car keys can be made with standard key blanks.

2. Remote Keys:

These types of keys are usually required for basic tasks like opening and locking cars remotely. The security device uses an infrared signal, or more commonly a radio transmitter, to send an encrypted message to the car’s receiver. Car remote keys are usually battery operated and have a button on the fob that disables the car’s alarm system. In contrast to smart keys, which can also be used to unlock the vehicle without contact, a radio key must be inserted into the ignition to start the vehicle. Remote car keys closely resemble laser-cut car keys.

3. Transponder Keys:

Chip or transponder keys are keys that have an RFID chip (Radio Frequency Identification) inside the key head and are more secure than the traditional car key. These types of keys have become an industry standard for vehicle manufacturers. Because the RFID chip adds an extra layer of security to your vehicle’s ignition. When a key is inserted into the ignition of a car with an immobilizer, the car checks that the RFID chip is present in the key and programmed into the car. The immobilizer system is what will stop the ignition from allowing the car to be started should a key not be recognized by the car.

4. Valet Keys:

As the name suggests, valet car keys are designed for use by valet services. A spare key allows vehicle owners to give away a special key with limited functionality when using these convenient services. Ultimately, this is a safer way for drivers to use valet services. With a special valet car key, the key can only lock or unlock the doors and turn on the ignition. However, a valet key cannot open a glove box or a trunk that the owner has locked. Many drivers keep their parking keys handy in case they lock themselves out of the car or lose the keys.

5. Flip Style Keys:

This key folds within itself and it’s sometimes called the switchblade key. There is always a button that will pop out the key for use. Here the base or shank of the key is can be retractable into the head or fob of the key.

6. Laser Keys:

Laser-cut keys have been widely used by luxury car brands to reduce the risk of car theft. Laser-cut car keys are generally thicker than other types of car keys. The same slot is lasered on both sides of a laser-cut vehicle key. This allows the key to be inserted into the ignition either way and makes the car key more difficult to replicate. Many laser cut car keys also have a removed section to which the metal physical key attaches. For this reason, a transponder chip is also used in this type of car key. With these chips, vehicle manufacturers can add an extra layer of security to their vehicles.

7. Smart Keys:

Smart car keys are one of the latest types of car keys to be utilized by vehicle manufacturers. Also known as keyless car keys, smart keys are detected by your vehicle when you’re nearby. This type of key also allows users to start their cars with a press of a button. While driving, these car keys do not need to be inserted into the ignition. RFID, short for radio-frequency identification, is the primary technology that drives the relationship between your push-start car and your smart key. There is a small chip, known as a tag, inside the key which sends out a low-frequency radio signal. This is an encrypted code that only your car can read with its sensors. The antennae on your car receive this short-distance signal, and the specialized sensor built into your car reads the unique code being transmitted by your key. To use your smart key, you must be within a certain range of your car. This range is generally about 100–150 feet for functions like unlocking your car and only 2–3 feet to actually start the ignition.

Should one switch from Traditional Car Keys(Transponder) to Smart Car Keys (Keyless) ?

I believe, the days of classic car keys are over, only a few manufacturers still build cars with ignition keys. Most adults know how to put the key in the ignition and start the car, but future generation kids probably won’t.

Technology is always changing and big companies like Ford and General Motors are trying to keep up with the competition. That’s why they stopped building cars with the standard ignition key.

The main reason for moving away from traditional locks and keys is security. Only a professional, qualified and licensed automotive locksmith understands the differences between makes and models for different locking and ignition systems.

Smart keys have a small chip called a tag inside the key that transmits a low-frequency radio signal. There is also a unique encrypted code that only your vehicle can read with its sensors. You receive the short-range signal via your car’s antennas and the unique sensor built into your vehicle reads the special code that your car key sends.

Modern key fobs are powered by radio waves. They can also be found as “proximity keys”. There are many names you can come up with for these electronic keys. The proximity function works without taking the key out of your pocket or handbag. You literally push the start button or turn the power button and the car starts. Car manufacturers have also put a small button on the door handles, with the proximity key in your pocket or pocket you just have to press this button and the door will unlock/lock when the key is within reach.

In the simplest terms, having a smart car key can give you better access to your car. Other advantages can be seen as:

a) Security:

A vehicle equipped with a smart key is less likely to be stolen. Even if a thief has managed to break into your car and tries to plug it in, the engine will not start. Active wiring won’t work as it needs your key’s encrypted code to move.

b) Convenience and Functionality:

If you lose your keys, your car can sense where they are or track them in your pocket, purse, or bag.No more digging and panicking about where you put your keys on a dark night. As long as you have the keychain with you, you can easily go anywhere.

c) Cool Factor:

That luxurious feeling !!!

Miscellaneous

Well, I have tried to cover every different type of existing car key in the market other than the digital car keys concept which is operated via your mobile phone. It is not been fully launched yet in the entire world.

Big tech companies are working on it such as Tesla, Google, BMW, Mercedes Benz and Apple as far as I know and following that I would like to share some articles along with it which you can go through and stay updated about the upcoming keyless technology!

Ending with a fun fact….

If you are still confused about choosing between keyed & keyless car system and are not able to decide, then I would recommend that you should follow Mr Bean’s rule!

Stay safe and updated!

Thank you!

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Adhish Velingkar

A novice blogger who talks about Power-Analog Electronics, EV's, Low Voltage devices, Embedded interface, Hardware-Simulation, Renewables, Electrical Designs