In Defense of Keyless Cars

Push button start used to be a thing of the rich and sporty.  It was limited to the likes of elite German and Italian sports saloons.  Proximity entry and push button start were only dreams for us common folk.  There has been a massive swing away from keys in recent years, however.  Not everybody has been keen to accept this new technology, though.  Key fobs can be expensive to replace, and they often make for confusing (not really) start sequences.  They’re more easy to lose, and get damaged more easily than traditional keys (or do they?).  It’s so much easier to forget them in the car, or some other car, and watch somebody drive away with them.  Perhaps some people simply prefer the tactile feedback a key provides.  Others may fear, justifiably, that increased electrification can lead to frequent and expensive repairs on a car down the road.  I’ve had some exposure to these little fobs in the past and always liked the concept.  After driving a vehicle equipped with one for a few days, in the Canadian winter, I only became further convinced of their superiority over current key-based technology.  So, in their defense, I’d like to post some counter-points to complaints people who use them may have.

They get lost/broken easier

Let’s ponder on this for a moment.  Do key fobs, often more clunky and weightier than traditional keys and remote, actually get lost any easier than keys?  They’re weightier in your pocket; it’s more obvious when they’re in there and when they’re not.  If you treat your key fob no different than you would your traditional keys – affix it to your keychain, attach your house keys too it, etc – you will find it just as easy, or just as hard, to lose as your existing set of keys.  From a durability perspective I submit these key fobs are more durable than existing remotes.  While you can still unlock doors and start cars with traditional remote/key combinations, they will squawk like crazy when manually unlocked after a keyless lock.  Both contain batteries which will, eventually, both need replacing.  Key fobs tend to be made of thicker, stronger plastic than their remote cousins.  Electronically they’re nearly identical, so we can’t argue that key remotes are “simpler” than key fobs.  If you treat your key fob like you treat your keys, you’ll find their life cycles are nearly identical.  Replacement cost?  The key remotes are cheaper than fobs, yes.  But you’re still easily out $100, more depending on the features of your car.  That number isn’t far off even the most expensive key fobs.

Elimination of keys

This is a big sell for me.  As a male, who hasn’t become dad enough to justify the use of a fanny pack, things like keys and wallets live in my jacket and pants pockets.  During the summer this is particularly painful.  Keys are pokey, bulky and prone to messy tangles in large bunches.  They cut through pocket linings and in winter bury themselves deep into pockets.  Key fobs eliminate all of the discomfort keys have.  Pop the fob in your pocket and you’re free to enter, lock, and start your car without any of the leg stabbing.  Keys as a physical device are cumbersome and ineffective.  They can be easily mimicked and wear out with time.  Frequent pocket exposure can wear the teeth of a key down.  While better for personal comfort, this makes unlocking or starting your car more difficult.  In fact, it may prevent it all together.  Let’s not forget how locks love to ice up or break during the cold winter months.  Key fobs are subject to none of these drawbacks.

Hands free

Have you ever tried to fumble the keys out of your pocket while holding a squirmy toddler?  Now add a grocery bag or four.  Or maybe a diaper bag, or a purse.  Maybe your hands are full of trombone, music stand, water bottle, and music.  Or maybe it’s the dead of winter, and your hands are clad in thick, comfy mitts.  You have to cram these bulky items into your jacket or, worse yet, pants, spilling the entire contents of your pocket into the snow when you finally do pull out your keys.  You have to remove your warm gloves, and expose your hands to often bitter cold, digging through snow to find your keys.  All while kids whine and groceries sit.  These are the problems we’re all familiar with.  Small battles we live with in our key based vehicles.  Did you know that, as an owner of a key fob car, you would regain full control of your hands?  Key fob entry allows you to unlock the vehicle with the same motion you would with opening it.  You never have to reach into your pocket for the right set of keys.  Just enter, depress brake, and go.  Our few days with a key fob truck were awesome in this respect.  Being the winter, I hate reaching into my coat for the keys.  But without keys, my key fob remained secure in the zipped pocket of my winter coat.  And I didn’t lose any access to my vehicle.

Hard to use

There are some cars who employ key fob systems that are complicated to use.  Every BMW I’ve driven has a complicated gear selection experience.  That aside, the actual start or unlock of the vehicle is essentially the same as with keys.  When you plunk yourself in the driver seat, you press the break and push the button.  This process is no different than starting a car with a key.  Even some of the most technically challenged people have been able to grasp using push button start quickly.

Electrical failure

Admittedly, this may be the greatest weakness facing key fobs.  Ultimately, if your car can’t detect the fob, it won’t start.  But many of the keys in cars today themselves have small RF chips, or near field technology.  This sort of chip has been used for over a decade in an attempt to thwart thieves.  If the computer in your car is failing so it can’t detect the fob, chances are the same failure would cause your car to go into lock down even with a key.  In fact, this is what eventually killed my first car.  The BCM, or Body Control Module, was mis-reporting the key code to the car’s computer.  The net result was my car believed it was being stolen and refused to start.  With a key.  Will a similar situation happen with a key fob?  Absolutely.  But this sort of thing also happens with similar frequency to keys as well.  Our cars are increasingly reliant on computer systems regardless of how they are accessed.  Key fobs aren’t another way for things to fail, they’re a different way for the same kind of failure.  Battery failures are a key fob’s Achilles heel, to a point.  There is a key you have to use to unlock the vehicle, but you can’t start it.  But you couldn’t start a keyed vehicle with a dead battery either.  In both cases, you need a boost to give you enough initial juice to start the vehicle.

Yes, key fob technology has some faults.  But on the whole it’s a great step forward in automotive technology.  I can’t wait to own a vehicle which uses this technology, and it’s exciting to see it become more widely adopted.  It may be finally time to see the age of the key draw to a close.

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