What exactly is an electronic car key? Well, in today’s modern world, many people increasingly have this very thing on their key rings. Also known as keyless entry, an electronic car key is increasingly becoming the norm and it’s hard to find a new vehicle that doesn’t offer keyless entry as a standard option. In fact, most car owners have now come to expect that their car will have a keyless entry system.

There’s no doubt that keyless entry systems have become a very convenient technology that allows a car owner to lock and unlock their doors without the need to put the key in the door, and, as you’d expect, many people prefer it. In some remote entry systems, the vehicle can also be started from the key fob which can be extremely helpful in colder climates.

How electronic car keys work

As some of the geekier out there amongst you might like to know how a car’s keyless entry system works, we’ll provide a quick explanation here.

The very earliest iterations of keyless car entry came in the form of keypads on the drivers’ side door of the vehicle. There were specific codes for each vehicle that had to be entered on the keypad in order to unlock the car without using the key. In later iterations of the keypad, car owners could not only unlock their doors but could also open their sunroof with it as well.

Fast-forward to 1983, and it was American Motors who really revolutionized keyless car entry as we know it today when they began to offer a handheld option for keyless entry on some of their vehicles. Then, in 1989, General Motors became the first company to offer handheld devices on a larger scale by offering handheld keyless entry on a large selection of vehicles, causing their availability to become far more common. 

Like all modern gadgets and gizmos, the technology of keyless entry systems has evolved over the years too. The earlier versions of the technology relied on keypads and infrared technology instead of radio signals like modern systems but, in addition to using radio signals, modern systems use encryption along with a series of rotating codes to help ensure that criminals can’t capture and emulate the code to gain access to vehicles. These rotating codes are also referred to as “rolling codes”.

Every time a button is pressed, the key fob will generate a new random number code to send to the car along with a function code that tells the car what you’re trying to do, such as a lock/unlock the car, open the boot or start it. Due to the nature of radio signals and the random number generators involved in keyless entry, the chance of you opening someone else’s car is estimated to be about a billion to one; so although unlikely, it’s still theoretically possible.

Smart keys

Another form of keyless entry that you may have heard of is the Smart Key. Smart Key technology is a proximity-based system that senses when the key is a certain distance from the car and triggers an action such as unlocking the doors or starting the car. One of the earliest versions of this system can be found in the 1993 Chevrolet Corvette and was referred to as the Passive Keyless Entry System. An engine immobilizer is a simpler form of smart key technology in which the actual key has a chip in it and, if the code that the key has and the code the car is expecting don’t match, the car won’t start.

The problem of desyncing

Very rarely, the handheld receivers that help to operate these complex systems will go out of sync although accidental desyncing is usually prevented thanks to the rolling code system mentioned above.

If a key is pressed and the key fob is out of range, it can put the system out of sync. Because of this, the system is programmed to accept any of the next 256 possible codes. Fortunately, desyncing a key fob is extremely hard to do as you’d have to press a button on the key fob 256 times and if it does happen, there’s usually a way to resync or reprogramme the receiver to allow it to function with your vehicle again, which, fortunately, is something that Keys 4 Cars can help you out with.

In earlier versions of the system (from 1998 to 2012), car owners could reprogramme their own key fob if the need arose but on more modern systems from 2013 onwards, the car has to be taken to a dealership or a car locksmith (like us for example) with specialized software in order to be reprogrammed.

If you do come across any of the problems we’ve highlighted above, get in touch and we’ll be glad to help.

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