Rick Wagner • Sep 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Henry Peters, owner and locksmith for White Knight Locksmith, holds up a translucent smart key with a transponder built inside. Erica Yoon photo.


KINGSPORT — If you lose a key for your late model car or truck, don’t expect to run out to Wal-Mart, a hardware store or a locksmith for a $1 or $2 replacement.

Put another way, those “smart keys” jingling in your pocket are definitely not like those that started your father’s Oldsmobile.

A 2006 survey of 50 makes and models by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety found the average dealer price of a smart key was $150, more than 12 times the average dealer price of a mechanical key at $12.

But in some cases, the prices can run from more than $200 up to thousands if a computer has to be replaced.

Among the keys of selected 2004 models, the highest total cost for programming and the key from a dealer was $335 for a Lexus IS300, with other pricey keys and programming including a Toyota Landcruiser and Volkswagen Beetle, tied at $290, a Toyota Prius at $278 and a VW Jetta at $238.

The lowest-priced among the group was a GMC Envoy XUV SLE at $53, followed by a Suzuki Verona at $61.

Among mechanical keys without a computer chip, a Saturn Vue was $5 at the bottom end, with a Chevrolet Impala the highest at $25.

“The specter of auto theft does not justify auto companies picking the pockets of consumers by charging hundreds of dollars more for replacement keys than they could in a competitive market,” the center’s letter stated.

Technology has dramatically changed the way car keys can be copied or replaced, increasing the price to hundreds of dollars or more and forcing some travelers to cool their heels for a weekend or longer to get a replacement, according to local locksmiths and a national consumer’s group.

“I don’t know of many new ones that don’t have some kind of electronic security on them,” local locksmith Henry Peters said in a recent interview at his locksmith shop.

All about the key codes

Peters, an Eastman Chemical Co. retiree who has been a locksmith for more than 33 years, owns White Knight Locksmith Service in Bloomingdale. The proprietor of the business, formerly known as Bloomingdale Locksmith, has invested $7,000 in a machine to make modern car keys. He spent another $3,000 upgrading it and said he needs to spend another $3,000 for the most recent upgrades.

He is a member and former president of the East Tennessee Locksmiths’ Association and a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America.

Other machines cost less, as little as $150, but are good only for keys from older vehicles.

Mark Fields, owner of Kingsport Locksmith Service and City Lock Shop, said he probably has $12,000 plus upgrades in his auto keying equipment.

“Technology is changing. The fall of the Berlin Wall brought this on,” Peters said.

He said after the wall fell and communism ended, some poorer people in East Germany envied the vehicles of generally richer West Germans and simply stole them.

“The insurance companies told auto makers to stop or they wouldn’t insure the vehicles any more,” Peters said.

Peters said that set the stage for widespread use of the first generation of keys beyond merely mechanical ones. Called the VATS or Vehicle Anti Theft System, the keys used in many General Motors vehicles starting in the mid- to late 1980s with the Chevrolet Corvette, have resistors of known values that must match what the vehicle is programmed to take, or the motor won’t start.

GM more recently started the Pass Key or PK system, which includes PK1, PK2 and PK3.

The Passenger Auto Theft System or PATS, used by Ford, has a transponder or little radio in the key that sends the signal for the fuel system and/or starter to work.

The PATS2 by Ford uses encrypted transponders that send and receive information. The vehicle sends a new value to the key, generally preventing the use of key cloning machines. He said that system can keep up for up to eight different keys.

Other auto makers have similar smart key systems.

The newest generation of keys aren’t keys in the traditional sense at all but are a key fob that can unlock a car from a person’s pocket. Some new Corvettes have those, which also trigger the seats and mirrors to adjust for the different drivers using their particular keys.

Fields predicted most all vehicles would go to the keyless fobs, although mechanical keys may still exist for manual override.

For instance, Fields said the new Mitsubishi Outlanders electronic fob and optional mechanical key run him about $250.

Getting car keys made

Many owners manuals tell consumers the dealer is the only choice for replacement keys or key copies, but Peters said that is rarely the case.

Current and recent model Mercedes vehicles are an exception.

“Locksmiths can’t do a Mercedes, period,” Peters said. “We can do the mechanical part of the key but not the program.”

The center’s letter urges the FTC “to move immediately against any manufacturer such as Mercedes found to require consumers a new computer or ECM to get a replacement key” and force auto makers to release programming information for smart keys instead of “charging exorbitant fees for nominal programming costs.”

For other vehicles, including Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Honda, Peters said a locksmith with the proper equipment can make the keys.

“Most of them (customers) have no idea they have a transponder in their key until they want to make a key,” Fields said at his shop.

As if on cue, a customer came to Fields’ drive-through window wanting three keys for a new Chevrolet Silverado, and was taken aback by the $30 price tag for each key, although a call to a dealer got a quote of $38 each. The customer decided to get the keys but had to go get the truck for the keys to be programmed.

Key cost varies, depending on the make and model. Fields said in the future he expects it will not be uncommon for car keys to cost $400 to $500 to copy or reproduce.

Generally, making a copy of a key if at least one or preferably two keys are available is not as expensive as making one with no key.

But other issues can arise. Some 1990s Mercedes allow only eight keys to be made and then the car’s computer model must be changed. The same was true for certain Toyota vehicles, as outlined in a March 2006 letter from the Center for Auto Safety requesting that the Federal Trade Commission force auto makers to make key code information available to legitimate locksmiths.

The letter, from auto safety center Executive Director Clarence M. Ditlow, recounted the story of Hurricane Katrina refugee Janna Smith. She hurriedly left the New Orleans area in her 2002 Toyota Highlander with only one key, a valet key. Her master keys were lost in the flood.

One dealer told her it would cost $2,200 for a fix since a new key would require a new computer. However, a Washington, D.C., dealer later voluntarily agreed to cover the $650 cost of reprogramming a new key after Toyota agreed to cover the computer cost.

Peters said the Toyota issue has been resolved, in part, by new equipment that allows locksmiths to “reflash” a computer card in Toyotas.

Another issue is with 1998 and 1999 Mercedes M Class vehicles, which have a limit of eight new keys.

Roger Stephens, according to the consumer group’s letter, bought a used 1998 ML 320 sports utility vehicle from a Mercedes dealer, and the keys simply wore out, forcing Stephen to pay just more than $2,500 for parts and labor of more than $1,000 and wait eight weeks for parts to arrive.

But Peters estimated that 70 percent to 80 percent of issues with newer car keys are from Chrysler vehicles that require a PIN code for each car. Since dealers usually are closed on Sundays and have only sales staff on duty on Saturdays, he said the PINs are unavailable until Monday or the next regular business day.

“I can help on the weekend if I had a four-letter PIN code,” Peters said. “It would be a big help for us locksmiths if we could access that information from the manufacturers.”

On the other hand, he said that General Motors has stopped giving out codes for keys. He and other locksmiths still can make the keys, but having to discover the code takes longer, he said.

The Federal Trade Commission has taken no action on the center’s letter, and although some auto makers provide codes, the industry has resisted mandatory provisions, citing security as a chief concern.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Charles Territo, told Automotive News recently that the trade commission does not need to intervene and that some auto makers already provide their key replacement information to locksmiths.

Peters said the most expensive key he has ever made cost $250. A customer in Elizabethton had a Ford with encrypted key technology and needed a key on a weekend.

Fields said that he usually makes VATS keys for $20 or $25, but that newer keys can run to around $300. He said prices will vary from locksmith to locksmith and from dealer to dealer.

Fields said keys sometimes are cheaper in larger metropolitan areas, although Wallace said sometimes keys are higher in those areas because of the higher cost of living and doing business.

Peters also said that some car owners don’t understand the importance of keeping an extra remote or not losing one.

For instance, he said on new Chrysler products, if someone locks the vehicle with a remote and then loses that remote, a locksmith can get them back in the vehicle but that the vehicle’s motor will not run until a remote is used to unlock it.

Just how secure are cars?

Peters said sometimes he wonders why it’s so difficult for locksmiths to get into locked vehicles for customers when a thief can get in with using the low-tech method of breaking the glass.

The auto safety center’s letter to the FTC, based on media reports, pointed out that thieves have learned how to hack into a vehicle’s electronic control system using laptops plugged into on-board diagnostics systems and reprogram the vehicle.

Others can pop the vehicle hood and install the factory electronic control module with with another one, and the less-sophisticated can use a roll-back to haul the vehicle away.

And in late August, the news came that a group of Israel and Belgian researchers have found a vulnerability in the algorithm used to secure anti-theft digital key systems used by the likes of Honda, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes Benz and Jaguar.

That allowed them to crack the code of the anti-theft keys using KeeLoq technology, licensed by Microchip Technology.

In about a day, they found 36 or 64 bits they needed to know for particular car makes, which reportedly allowed the researchers to crack the code on an individual car in a few seconds, according to Orr Dunkelman, a researcher at the University of Leuven in Belgium who worked on the project with four colleagues.

“He can do this by reading the keys wirelessly — for example, which sitting next to a patron at a restaurant or standing near a car when the owner opens it and sniffing the communication between the digital key and the car,” according to the Wired Blog Network at http:/blog.wired.com.

“Once he has a key’s unique code, he can encode it to a chip in a remote device which he can do in a couple of seconds in the field and use it to open and steal the car,” the Web site stated.

Thus an unscrupulous valet with some computer know-how could gather information on every car he or she parked.

The group of researchers is waiting to hear from Microchip Technologies before releasing their research paper, discussed at an August conference.

A lower-tech way to get access to a vehicle, plentiful on various Internet sites, is simply to take the VIN or vehicle identification number off a parked car, go to the dealer with the information and walk out the front door with a key.

Peters said that has been done in the past, especially with GM vehicles, but that newer smart key technology won’t allow it.

In addition, he said dealers are supposed to require identification and proof of ownership such as registration or a title.

Ditlow’s letter said that low-tech requirement would help ensure that codes for smart keys go only to locksmith’s authorized by owners, not to auto thieves.

For more information, go to www.autosafety.org and http://www.aloa.org.

Recommended for You

    Kingsport Times News Videos