How Does Keyless Entry Actually Work?

Keyless entry in cars is something we all expect in newer vehicles. It’s a fantastic modern convenience that has been slowly evolving in the background for decades. The system has also greatly affected the price of getting a new key. It used to be all you needed was a locksmith, but now you need an army of tech wizards and probably a frog’s leg. Regardless, this modern convenience is more complex than you think.

Keyless entry is older than you think

A pair of early keyless entry Mercedes-Benz keys
Mercedes-Benz models have been half keyless for some time | Dmitry Rogulin via Getty Images

If you asked any stranger on the street how old keyless entry is, they’d probably say something like “get away”, or “2010-ishhh??”. They’d be wrong. In actuality, systems like this have existed in one form or another since the 1980s. Ford was an early pioneer of the system, calling it “SecruiCode”. It was effectively a MasterLock keypad glued to the door of various Ford models like the Thunderbird.

Input a code, and the car granted you access. However, the key was still necessary to start the vehicle. It was a huge plus if you locked them in your car. No more clothes hangers and tennis balls. The French made the next leap with the technology in 1982, pushing it into its final form in the Renault Fuego.

This is how it works

Early keyless entry and start in a Toyota Prius
Early remote start in a Toyota Prius | Koichi Kamoshida via Getty Images

This “fuego” technology is somewhat complex, despite basically being a small radio in your car keys. A transmitter sends a code to a receiver, just like a remote locking system does. These codes are all randomly generated, according to How Stuff Works. If the receiver in the car gets the right code, which it is also randomly generating, the doors open.

But what happens if the system breaks? Say the sender (your keys) or the receiver (the computer in your car) is damaged. Even if it’s only a little damage, the computer may no longer send or receive the correct code. Should this happen, most manufacturers include a hard key in the fob, which you probably play with incessantly while in line at the deli.

The future of remote vehicle access

Mercedes' idea of the future of remote access
Mercedes-Benz Keyless Go | Jens Kalaene | via Getty Images

It took automakers a while to get to that point, however. Some brands required the key to be extremely close to the vehicle, others needed the key to be touching a point on the door to send the code properly. Now, all the kinks have been worked out, and you can even use your phone to accomplish the task. Mercedes has it on their brand new electric SUV, and Tesla will let your phone do all sorts of wild things with your car, like summoning it to you.

Phone integration with cars is something we can continue to expect to see develop. Most everyone has a phone on them at all times, and it likely won’t be long until phones replace your car keys entirely. Ford is trying this with the Mach E currently. It remains to be seen how much farther this integration goes.

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