In the modern era there are a wide range of car keys and car locks that may be used on your car, so identifying the type of car key that you have is crucial if you need to find a replacement.
Prior to 1990, getting a replacement car key just involved a short trip to your local auto locksmith to cut a new key for you, however, with advances in technology and anti-theft devices, car locking systems have become a lot more complicated.
In this article we'll look at all of the different types of car keys that are available to help you identify what you have on your car and we'll look at how they are made:
Types of Car Keys
There are a number of different types of car keys that your auto locksmith can cut for you, which range vastly in their complexity, security and also price:
The Basic Car Key
Most older vehicles will just have a standard, machine cut key, which are easy to copy and have little security features. To increase security most owners of these types of vehicles will have installed some sort of security alarm and electronic fob to prevent theft of their vehicle.
The Car Key Remote Control
After the basic car key, most cars will have some sort of remote controlled unlocking device. Car key remotes will usually be battery operated and have a button on the key fob, which will disable the car's alarm system.
These devices will either use an infrared signal or more commonly, a radio transmitter to send a coded message to the receiver on the car. A common problem is that you might be able to enter your car with your key but if the battery is flattened then you won't be able to disable the alarm!
In rarer cases people have also reported not being able to access their cars due to radio interference with the signal!
The Car Key Transponder
To help combat a tide of car crime, in 1990 most manufacturers and car key makers started fitting their keys with an electronic transponder chip in the head of the key, or in their car key fobs. Each chip works by sending out a unique code to the car's on board computed or 'immobiliser' device. If the code doesn't match up to the code programmed into the immobiliser then the car will not start.
You probably won't ever realise that you have this transponder chip in your car, but if you ever tried to start another car from the same manufacturer, this transponder device would prevent you from doing it.
Most locksmiths or car dealerships will be able to re-progamme a key and transponder if you have lost your car keys. Alternatively if you have a spare car key, you should be able to programme this yourself if you check the owners manual, although this can be a little tricky.
Most transponder keys will have a fixed code that is transmitted each time.
The Car Key Transponder with Rolling Codes
More advanced transponder keys are available, which create a unique code every time the key is used. This means that they are practically impossible to duplicate and hack so are a lot more secure.
However, conversely this means, they are more expensive to replace if they're lost or stolen!
The Switchblade Key
A switchblade key is a key where the base, or shank of the key is retractable into the head or fob of the key. These are either folded or clicked open for use and you can buy and replace either the key or the head separately if they break or malfunction.
The Smart Key
Smart Keys were developed by Mercedes-Benz in 1998 on the S-Class Mercedes and is described as "an electronic access and authorization of system"
In the true sense they are not really a key, as they are designed to stay in your pocket and no 'unlocking' is needed. A car with a smart key system will have a series of antennas that can detect the presence of a smart key. The owner will usually be able to touch a button or sensor to unlock the car, and in some cases a number of settings will be applied to the set up of the car, such as music preferences, seating position and climate control.
The car's immobiliser will be deactivated and the ignition started with the push of a button if the smart key is within the car. Some smart keys will even lock themselves when the owner leaves the vehicle and walks away.
These cars will usually have a back up mechanical key as well, however, losing and replacing a smart key is not going to be cheap and will usually mean a trip to the car dealership rather than an auto locksmith.
Smart keys, however, are extremely secure and use rolling security codes rather than fixed codes to prevent theft. This means that the codes between the smart key and the immobiliser are randomised meaning there is a lot less chance of being able to hack the system.
The Master Key
Master keys are not so common any more but were previously used by car dealerships to programme replacement car keys.
Nowadays, the information used for programming cars is stored in a central database so master keys are not found very often.
However, if you're buying a used car that uses a master key, make sure that they provide this, because if you lose the master key then you may need to replace the whole engine management system, which is not going to be cheap!
The Valet Key
Some cars come with an extra 'valet' key, which will give access to the ignition and car doors only, but will not give access to the glove box and the boot.
Car Key Cutting Techniques
Ever car key can be made in a couple of different ways:
Mechanically Cut Car Keys
Until recently this was the only way to make a car key, where a locksmith would use a machine to cut the grooves onto on one side of the key, just like they would for a standard house key. This would then fit into the ignition and disable the steering lock.
This key would usually unlock all doors on the car, the boot and sometimes even the glove compartment.
Laser Cut Car Keys
Laser cut car keys, are also referred to as 'internal cut' or 'sidewinder' keys due to the markings on the shank of the key. They are usually slightly thicker, have fewer groves, and are cut on both sides so they can go into the ignition either way around.
The lock cylinders for laser cut keys are harder to pick and also harder to copy, as the machines to cut them are more specialised. This also makes them more expensive to replace.