Smart keys not making Americans smarter about getting locked out

March 13, 2013

According to AAA, at least 4 million Americans a year call for help after getting locked out of their car. What's noteworthy: That figure hasn't changed despite the advent of "smart" keys, those fobs that you can stick in your pocket and forget — which a surprising number of people do.

More than half of all new vehicles offer either standard or optional push-button start and keyless entry, and the feature has become ubiquitous on luxury cars. Even low-end models – from the Chevy Sonic to the Dodge Dart to the Ford Fiesta — now offer fobs rather than old-fashioned keys. Anyone who's ever driven a car with one can see the benefits; no hunting for keys and no fumbling to unlock doors when carrying heavy packages or children, thanks to the auto-sensing system most vehicles employ.

But the fobs come with a number of drawbacks. I've had test cars fail to start because the car began rejecting signals from the fob, requiring it to be put into a special slot in the armrest for a reset. Anectdotal evidence suggest some drivers are prone to leaving the cars running, because they no longer need to remove a key before exiting the vehicle, a problem federal regulators have looked over. And should a driver lose the fob, replacements can run hundreds of dollars due to the need for reprogramming chips.

AAA says that while smart fobs are supposed to guard against locking yourself out of the car, there's still several ways for it to happen — such as letting the battery in the fob run down, or putting the fob in a cupholder and forgetting it's there. While most models have some kind of warning system should the fob become separated from the car while it's running, those systems aren't foolproof, and most allow the car to keep running in case the battery in the fob dies while the car's on the road.

The answer might come from where all of the answers to modern life problems lie: your phone. A couple of automakers are testing apps that can double as remote starters, and given that automakers are slowly moving toward's built-in Internet connections, having a car that can accept an unlock and start code from a smartphone seems like a ready solution. Despite that, I'd bet locksmiths aren't worried about their business slowing down any time soon.