The High Cost Of Keyless Entry Systems And Transponder Keys

by Don Elliott on August 20, 2012

I bought a car at the auto auction this week. I had a few things that I wanted on a new used car that I hadn’t been able to find online or at any new or used car dealerships. No, that’s not correct. I found cars that had what I wanted but the price was too high.

The car that I bought turned out to be a great used car value; leather seats, moon roof, Bose sound system, good styling and the right price. As I have said regularly in this space, I was prepared to spend a little more money to correct problems that were not obvious as I bid on the car including an oil change, an alignment, overall check up by an ASE technician and who knows what else.

On this car I got a surprise. Sometimes when you buy a car at the car auction, the seller will hold back extra keys until the car is sold. This particular car only had one key and key fob but, again, not unusual at the auction. The car was traded in at a large new car dealership that I knew well. However, when the title arrived there was no extra key and fob. From the dealership, I learned that they only got the one key set with the trade-in.

I called Steve, one of my favorite locksmiths, and asked if he could help me out. Steve reported back that he didn’t really have a discounted resource of keys and fobs for this particular Japanese import brand. I decided to go directly to the dealership and step up to whatever it cost. How much could it be anyway?

Gulp! A factory original keyless entry fob and key with a transponder chip would cost me $246. To program the chip would cost me an hour of shop time, an additional $100 at this auto service facility. Plus tax!!!

Why so expensive? The keyless entry portion of the key set contains a controller chip that “talks” to the cars computer. It uses a 40 bit code plus a function code that tells the car what you want it to do, lock the doors, sound the alarm, open the trunk and so on. The chip uses a “pseudo-random number generator” synchronized with the cars computer that allows up to 256 random pushes before the remote keyless entry fob quits working.

The key is actually less expensive but has to be cut, like any key, and has to be programmed or authorized to start the car. The key itself has a Magnetic Coupled Transponder system that operates on a very limited range radio frequency. The identification code imbedded into the key has to be added to the car’s computer memory for the key to work. Programming the key is considered proprietary to the manufacturer so, in this case, only the franchised dealer is authorized to do the work.

I checked the Internet for options for a less expensive product. Surprisingly, I found some choices at about half the cost. I also found plenty of warnings that buying remote keyless entry and transponder keys online were no guarantee that they would actually work or that the car dealer would agree to do the programming.

In the end, I was able to find a locksmith who was able to sell me the fob and key for about $100 less and guarantee me that the dealership would make it work or he would refund my money. Problem solved but for much more money than I expected to spend.

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