Fobs with brains have taken my keys

The car key. A simple yet ingenious device that unlocks freedom of movement, flights of fancy and even pleasure for those of us who like to drive.

My husband and I manage the press fleet for Atlantic Canadian auto journalists, and sometimes weeks go by without having to insert an actual key into the ignition of a vehicle, the old-fashioned way.

Love it or hate it, the key fob without a key is here to stay.

I was thinking about this little technological wonder when I looked at the array of car “keys” under our care, splayed across the kitchen table. Not one of the five had an actual key on it. They were all fobs.

At one time, key fobs were solely for unlocking or locking a car remotely. Today they have evolved into design statements, vehicle starters, and in some cases, vehicle diagnostic tools.

In the beginning, some had a key that would flip out like a jack knife with the push of a button and this is what one would put into the ignition. Pretty fancy. Now, many vehicles have a start/stop push-button on the instrument panel that, as long as the fob is in the vehicle somewhere, one can start the car.

In some cases, you merely have to approach the vehicle with the fob somewhere on your person, touch the vehicle and presto! The doors unlock.

But, if one is slightly obsessive about these things, how does one check to make sure a vehicle is locked before walking away? Modern dilemma.

Speaking of dilemma, since the key isn’t a key any more, instead of constantly hearing, “Lisa, have you seen my car keys?”, shouldn’t my husband be saying, “Hey, Lisa have you seen the car fob?” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

What would be innovative and totally welcome is a key fob with a paging system. Like the paging system on that other dinosaur, the cordless land-line telephone, one would simply hit a paging button on the key dock and that irritatingly misplaced scoundrel would chirp or chime or yell out, ‘I’M OVER HERE!”

The key fob is truly a marvel when one considers its miniature size but maximum function.

Inside that little do-hickey is a computer with a transmitter that sends a code to a receiver within the vehicle’s computer. The controller chip on the computer board inside the fob creates the code that gets transmitted to the car’s receiver.

The code is known as a rolling code. Within the tiny memory location in the fob, there could be a trillion possible codes. This is for security purposes. Every time you press that unlock or lock button on your fob, a new random code scurries through the air.

The receiver is expecting a certain code from the transmitter. If it gets the correct code, the receiver in the vehicle will respond and perform the function the human is expecting, i.e. unlock the door, open the trunk, sound the panic alarm, start the vehicle, etc.

If it doesn’t get the right code, nothing happens. Once the door is unlocked or the trunk is opened remotely, both the transmitter and the receiver generate a new random code and synchronize to each other so that they both know the new code for the next time.

In researching for this column, one of the discoveries that struck me was that, accidentally hitting the unlock button on your fob at a fair distance from your vehicle will cause the transmitter in your fob and the receiver in your vehicle to de-synchronize. Then what? Does my fob no longer work?

Most systems are set up so that you have 257 total chances to accidentally hit the buttons on your remote, desynchronizing the transmitter and receiver, before the two will be disconnected and ignore your request completely.

Is it possible to re-synchronize the two brains? Well yes. All you have to do is perform the Re-synchronize Jive, a ridiculous-looking dance, while standing next to your vehicle in a Walmart parking lot, while holding the key fob in your left armpit.

Just kidding. Most manufacturers have ways for the owner to do this themselves. Some require you to turn the ignition of your vehicle on and off eight times in 10 seconds. Others involve closing all vehicle doors, inserting the key into the ignition and holding down the power UNLOCK button on the driver’s door panel until instructed to release.

Almost like performing the Re-syn-hronize Jive.

A selection of Lisa’s fobs.
Photograph by: Lisa Calvi, for PNG