Keyed Up

Vehicles: To frustrate thieves, high-tech ignition systems have gained popularity. Just make sure you don't lose the costly keys.

September 26, 2002|By Bethany Halford | Bethany Halford,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There are two things you should never lose - your cool and your car keys. They go together, because you're likely to lose your cool when a key disappears and you learn it will cost $50 to $100 to replace it.

Yes, that's the going rate these days. And forget about going to the hardware store to have a spare key cut for a couple of bucks. Many of today's car keys are actually high-tech anti-theft devices that contain microchips, tiny transmitters and embedded electronic passwords.

Since the mid-'90s, every car in Europe and many in the United States have been equipped with "immobilizer" technology. While the sophistication varies by manufacturer, these smart keys all depend on something known as radio-frequency identification, or RFID.

Within the key, most often in its head, a small electronic transponder works like a radio. It holds a password, and it responds to a similar component in the steering column of the car.

When the key is placed in the ignition, the steering column radio sends a signal to the key asking for the password. If they key doesn't supply the right password, the engine's computer won't supply gasoline to the fuel injectors and the car goes nowhere.

"It basically says, `Hey, I'm the key that starts this car,'" said John Davis Jr., a locksmith with Acme Lock and Key in Cockeysville.

Farmers were actually the earliest adopters of RFID tagging, using it to track their livestock. In the automotive world, General Motors introduced a rudimentary version of the technology with its 1986 Corvette.

"We knew back then that the moment they came up with that key, it would reduce the theft of those cars dramatically," said Sgt. Bob Jagoe of the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team. For Corvettes, at least, the technology has done its job.

"Every [Corvette case] I've had has been a case of insurance fraud where the owner gave someone a key," Jagoe said.

Despite GM's early success, the technology didn't catch on industrywide until the mid-'90s, after the Berlin Wall collapsed and car thefts surged in Europe. European insurers demanded better anti-theft systems, and it didn't take long for the trend to reach the United States.

The original RFID systems used a permanent, predetermined password. But when high-tech thieves learned how to intercept the codes, the systems were redesigned to change the password each time the key is placed in the ignition. Now, police say, the transponders are impressively effective - while they haven't eliminated car theft, they have reduced it remarkably.

"By putting in the high- technology key, we've thrown out all the dummies, all the non-professionals," Jagoe said.

As a result, many European thieves now resort to "house-jacking," breaking into the owner's home to steal the car keys. In the Baltimore area, Jagoe said, at least a third of the car thefts are the result of drivers who leave their keys in the ignition.

"The technology works," he declared. The hard part is "getting the humans to lock their cars and take their keys with them."

Increased security comes at a price. An extra ignition key costs $30 or more - often a lot more. Len Stoler Lexus, for example, charges $300 for a spare key to the slinky SC430 sports car (base sticker price: $62,000).

Lose all the keys to your car and it gets even more expensive. On some Toyota and Lexus models, it means replacing the Electronic Control Module for a fee that ranges from $500 to $2,000.

"When you move up the ladder in terms of higher security, then you have to expect a higher cost in terms of that security. It doesn't come for free," said Bill Allen, e-marketing manager for Texas Instruments, which makes components used in RFID systems.

Before RFID, a car manufacturer would typically make 1,000 to 1,500 unique keys for its entire lineup. As a result, any particular key could be used to start many different cars.

Carlos Orellana, a locksmith and shop manager at Liberty Lock and Security in Rockville, recalls a customer who picked up his Ford Thunderbird from an airport parking lot. Jet-lagged and groggy from his trip, the man didn't realize until he got home that the car he was driving - the same model, color and year as his own - belonged to someone else.

That sort of mix-up is almost impossible with transponders, technologists say.

Kevin Hille, a design engineer who works on Ford's SecuriLock system, said the automaker has 4 quadrillion (that's 4,000,000,000,000,000) distinct key codes at its disposal. As a result, the company's Web site boasts, "every Ford sold worldwide for the next 10 billion years could have unique codes."

A peculiar aspect of the latest SecuriLock system is that it takes two keys to make a spare. "The assumption is that if you have two keys you're the owner of the car," said Hille. Unfortunately, the car only comes with two keys, so losing just one makes getting a replacement costly and complicated.

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