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Eric's Autos: The Pros and Cons of Keyless Ignition

Eric Peters on

Many new cars don't come with keys. At least, not a traditional physical key that goes into an ignition switch that you then turn to start the engine. Instead, you get a transmitter fob - carried in your pocket or purse - and there's a button you push on the dash to start the engine. Some of these buttons don't even require that you press them continuously until the engine starts.

Just touch them lightly, once - and the computer will then spin the starter until the engine fires. Pretty neat! Some of these systems also make it possible to start the car's engine remotely, too - so you can warm the car up on a cold day without having to go outside to do it. That's one upside. Another is that it's harder to steal the car.

Forget about reaching under the dash and cutting a couple of wires, then splicing them together (or, if you had an old Ford, running a wire from the remote-mounted starter solenoid right there under the hood to the car's battery). If the car's computer doesn't receive the right code from the transmitter fob - the one electronically keyed to it - the engine will not start. Some systems are even smarter than that: The computer will disable the ignition circuit if someone tries to do an end-run around the transmitter fob.

It's proved to be a very effective theft deterrent. The pros can still beat it, but most car thieves are not pros. Hot wiring is not what it once was.

Keyless ignition is also convenient. No more fumbling in your purse or pocket to find the key. So long as it's somewhere in your pocket or purse, you're good to go. The fob will transmit the "ok" code to the car's computer, allowing you to push the starter button and be on your way. No more struggling to get into the car when it's dark or cold or wet outside, either. Most late model cars that have keyless ignition also have keyless entry. The system senses your presence as you approach the car (well, the car's computer can sense the transmitter fob) and will automatically unlock the doors for you. You don't even have to push the "unlock" button anymore. Nice.

But as with almost everything, there are some downsides. First, there's the price tag. You probably won't notice it up front, because the cost of keyless entry/ignition is usually folded into the price of the car itself, or hidden as part of a package that includes other stuff such as a sunroof or heated seats. But don't doubt it: You are paying for the convenience. How much, exactly, is hard to pin down. But all the components involved most definitely cost more than an old-style lock tumbler and a $10 physical key.

And if you keep the car long enough - or are the kind of person (like me) who loses things like car keys - you'll be noticing the cost down the road. When it becomes necessary to buy a new fob. Or when the "start" button stops working.

Unlike old-style keys - which you could get copies made for a couple of bucks at any hardware store - electronic fobs often cost $100 or more each to replace. And because the technology is often proprietary your only source for a replacement key may be the dealership. It's not like your TV/DVD player - for which you can buy a cheap universal remote if you lose or break the original.


That can be a huge hassle - in addition to a big expense - especially if you lose your only remaining fob in some out of the way area, far from an authorized dealership. Or during off hours, when the dealer is closed. Then you've got no choice but to wait for the dealership to open in the morning - and pony up whatever he asks for a replacement transmitter.

Maybe you'll never lose your fob. But eventually, the fob will stop working - or at least, the more time that goes by, the more likely it will be with each passing day that at some point, it will stop working.

You can insure yourself against this eventuality by haggling for an extra set of fobs at the time of vehicle purchase. This is the one time when you have some leverage in your favor. Make the most of it. If closing the deal on a $40,000 car is going to take the small additional concession of supplying you, the buyer, with an extra set of $100-$200 electronic transmitter fobs, you can bet most dealers will grit their teeth and make it happen - in the same way they'd have "thrown in" floor mats or an undercoating job back in the day.

That leaves just one thing - the push-button starter itself. Eventually, that's going to fail, too. Just like old-style ignition switches in the steering column eventually failed. The big difference, Then vs. Now, is that you probably won't be able to fix it with a screwdriver by the side of the road. Which is why, as convenient and Star Trek-cool as this stuff is, I'd personally rather have the old-style ignition switch. And a simple metal key I can get copies of made at any hardware store for about $5.

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