Car Keys: How They Moved From Metal to Microchip

Justin Lloyd-Miller/Autos Cheat Sheet

For about a century, or ever since the end of the old-fashioned hand crank, a car key has been just a simple piece of metal. At first, it was a security feature to protect easy-to-steal cars with push-button starters. But it quickly became the norm in the industry, and over the last few years, it’s become a whole lot more. It wasn’t too long ago that drivers could get copies of their keys made at the local hardware store. But over the last couple of decades, automakers have been gradually evolving the car key, adding features that made them more complicated and expensive to produce, while outsourcing the jobs of the key itself to technology like remote entry and ignition. Today, many “keys” are high-tech wonders that control the vehicle’s basic systems — often without the actual metal component that unlocks the ignition on a car’s steering column.

Automakers first started playing around with keyless entry options in the 1980s. Ford was an early adopter, introducing a keyless entry keypad on the door of several 1980 Ford and Lincoln models, a feature they still offer today. However, the idea of using key fobs to wirelessly unlock your doors was first done by the French and offered in the 1982-87 Renault Fuego.

2013-Audi keyless entry
Source: Audi

From there, the race was on. American Motors sourced their keyless entry tech from Renault in 1983. General Motors started implementing theirs in 1989. In the ’90s, the Chevy Corvette and Mercedes offered proximity keys that locked and unlocked doors depending on how close you were to your car. By the early 2000s, remote entry was ubiquitous, and we began seeing keyless ignition on exotic cars. Then we got smart keys — ones that aren’t a physical ignition key at all; you just push a button to start the vehicle as long as you have it in proximity.

It didn’t take much longer for smartphones to enter the scene. Just a week ago, we reported on a new auto service, VOYO, that’s able to send signals to a driver’s smartphone to get them access to the car without any physical key at all. In other words, your smartphone is now your car key. Not to be outdone, however, automakers like BMW are using cutting-edge technology that’s sure to keep our physical “keys” around a little longer.

BMW 7 Series New York Media Launch.
Source: BMW

Take a look at the BMW 7 Series key fob above. This particular fob is unlike anything we’ve seen before: First of all, it has an actual video screen on its face — a 2.2-inch touchscreen with a 320×240 resolution. But it’s no gimmick — BMW calls it the “remote control parking” or RCP, which it describes as an autonomous parking system. Using the key fob, the driver can move the car forward into a parking space, or backward out of a parking space, while standing nearby.

But there are limits to this tech. In response to safety concerns, the company designed RCP so the car can only move one and a half car lengths under remote control. A BMW brochure covering RCP also specifies that a built-in safety system oversees the parking procedure to make sure the car’s path is clear, saying “The entire parking procedure is monitored by Park Distance Control (PDC), the Parking assistant and the Surround View sensors.”

Source: BMW
Source: BMW

BMW’s tech is an interesting alternative to those newfangled smartphone services — rather than make your smartphone the key, BMW has designed its key fobs to incorporate smartphone technology, adding cutting-edge tech to enhance the performance of its flagship model.

So in a way, we’ve moved full circle; instead of turning a key, we’re starting our cars with buttons again. But instead of relying on a primitive mechanical hand-cranking system, we’re using bits of plastic built into tiny circuits with wireless RFID signaling — or even virtual buttons in touchscreens. It’s all so modern, it makes you wonder what the next new car ignition technology will be — will we finally find a way to put user controls into a fully virtual interface, and control our cars with our minds? Only time will tell.

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