The basic car key, which was common up until the mid-1990s, has no security feature other than the unique profile on the shank. It’s easy to copy these basic car keys, virtually any hardware store can do it for about $3.
On most modern cars, an electronic key fob (also known as a remote or transmitter) accompanies a basic car key. Depending on the automaker or complexity of the design, an electronic key fob may incorporate features such as unlocking the car doors, opening the truck and even sounding an emergency alarm.
Around the mid-1990s, the major car manufacturers began placing a transponder chip in the plastic head of the key. The chip emits a signal to a receiver in the car’s ignition. If the receiver detects the wrong signal — meaning that the wrong key is in the ignition — the vehicle will not start. We checked the price of a basic transponder key on a late-model Ford truck and the dealership quoted $160 for the key and an additional $75 for the fob.
A potential low-cost alternative for access to your car is to order a basic key without the transmitter. This key will do everything but start the engine and can come in handy if you ever leave your keys inside the vehicle. If you’re the type who frequently loses keys, you might be able to save money on the programming by creating a third key to have as a spare. If you already have two keys, a number of vehicle brands will allow you to program a third key on your own.
You can tell a laser-cut key apart from a basic key because the shank is slightly thicker and has fewer grooves. Laser-cut keys are often referred to as sidewinder keys, due to the distinctive winding cut on the shank. The machines needed to cut these keys are significantly more expensive than a standard key-cutting machine and are not as likely to be found at every locksmith or hardware store.
Laser-cut keys usually have built-in transponder chips and they need to be programmed at the dealership or by a locksmith, preferably one who is a member of the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA). All-in-one laser-cut keys are becoming more popular, but as we mentioned, these keys are more expensive and typically need to be replaced at the dealership. Including labor, these can range from $150-$250.
Switchblade keys have shanks that fold into the fob when they’re not in use and pop out with the press of a button. They can have a basic cut or a laser cut. One small advantage of the switchblade key is that its components can be purchased separately. If for some reason your key is damaged and no longer works, you can buy the shank separately for roughly $60-$80. But the more likely scenario is that you’ve lost your key, in which case you’ll need both it and the fob into which it folds. This can cost between $200 and $300, once you factor in programming of both components.
Smart keys aren’t keys in the traditional “mechanical” sense. They are fobs that are either inserted in the dash or, in the more advanced systems, they stay in your pocket or purse. As the sales team at Lynch Family Dealerships explains the driver turns the car on and off with the press of a dashboard mounted button. A smart key’s main form of security is its ability to use rolling security codes. The vehicle’s computer recognizes the code emitted by the smart key and verifies it before starting the engine. Mercedes-Benz was one of the first automakers to utilize this technology but smart keys aren’t just limited to German automakers. Nearly every car brand has a smart key bundled in its high-tech packages. Nissan, for example, makes it available on a number of models.
There’s no denying that modern keys are expensive. And so the best defense against losing them is a good offense. It is better to get a spare key now, on your terms, than to stress out and spend the money in what might be an emergency. You can take advantage of the cost-cutting methods here and avoid the labor charges by programming the key yourself.