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The Future of Car Keys

Mercedes car key


The question was posed recently in an email between some of the leading lights in the automotive locksmith industry was “How long will it be until car keys are a thing of the past?”. This question is obviously of great importance to automotive locksmiths as it’s their bread and butter, so in this piece, we will be exploring how the automotive industry is changing the way we will get into and start our vehicles in future.


How do things stand today and the technology that is already out there?


Keyless entry systems have been around since 1998 when Mercedes-Benz introduced it in their S-class range, this didn’t have a great impact on the automotive locksmith industry at the time as widespread adoption didn’t happen until recently, and even then, these keyless entry systems still required a physical device to be with the owner of the car. This meant that the most significant change automotive locksmiths had to deal with was changing the type of remotes/keys they stocked by adding proximity keys and in a way, the invention of Keyless Entry created opportunities for business-savvy locksmith due to its vulnerability to relay attacks. These attacks meant that there were opportunities for locksmiths to provide additional security products to prevent them.

phone in car


Today, however, we are already seeing smartphone apps being used as entry systems on a limited range of vehicles such as Tesla’s, Fords and BMW’s and there are also a range of third-party apps such as Apple CarPlay, that are compatible with a large variety of modern vehicles. Another app that has been making waves in the realm of Keyless entry technology is Bosch’s Perfectly Keyless app which claims to be the first passive keyless entry app and also claims to be completely secure from any form of interference by thieves. A lot of this smartphone-based app technology has yet to be widely adopted, however, and the majority of people still use the keys that come with their vehicles. One reason for this is that it is often offered at an additional cost by the dealer, and another is simply people like to stick with what is familiar.


Ford has used another form of keyless entry system on some of its U.S models for years now as a backup should you lose your key or you can’t access your app for whatever reason. The keypad on certain Ford models allows the driver to enter a code to gain access to the vehicle and then, once again inside the vehicle to start the ignition.


Another technology that has the potential to disrupt the automotive locksmith industry in the years to come is the adoption of in-built biometrics in vehicles, meaning the driver can enter and start their car via fingerprint. This has some significant advantages over smartphones as people still lose phones and they can run out of battery, meaning that even with smartphone technology, you still have to have an alternate way to enter your car. With biometrics built into the vehicle, this is no longer an issue, most people are unlikely to misplace their fingers and if they do, I wouldn’t recommend driving. Hyundai was the first manufacturer to release a car with biometric technology back in 2019, with their Santa Fe model, but it was only sold in a few select markets.


fingerprint scan

What does the future hold?

While at present, the use of the new technologies mentioned above is limited, there will most certainly be a dramatic shift towards them in the coming years. How long do we have until the key disappears is a question that is hard to answer. However, many locksmiths will be concerned about losing their livelihoods in the future. It's not all doom and gloom and a keyless future may be further away than you think.

Britain's ageing car population

old car


One thing that is going in the favour of the automotive locksmith industry is the fact that vehicles over the past 25 years or so have become much better manufactured and tend to last longer than the cars of say the seventies, eighties or even early nineties. The average age of a car in Britain in 2018 was 8.2 years compared to 1994 where the average vehicle aged just 6.7 years old. What is further encouraging is this trend is not just isolated to the UK but is happening globally with a 2019 survey by U.S firm IHS Markit stating that the average age of a vehicle in that year was 11.9 years old. With Keyless cars only really becoming mainstream in the middle of the last decade and people for one reason or another choosing to continue to drive their ageing cars. 48.6% of which are 6 years or older, with a further 8% 13 years or more. It seems unlikely that car keys and proximity keys will disappear into smartphones overnight. What is more, is that people are unlikely to adopt this new technology all at once.

Manufacturers due diligence

Another reason to be optimistic is, after the introduction of keyless entry remotes and proximity keys, manufacturers saw a swathe of complaints regarding relay attack vulnerabilities in the years that followed, as mentioned earlier. This has served to make them more cautious in their attempts to roll out new entry and security systems. Therefore, they will be spending increased time in ensuring that new methods for accessing our vehicles are as secure as possible, delaying the inevitable transition to a fully keyless automotive market considerably.

Are the dealers fighting to keep the keys?

Another thing automotive locksmiths might have on their side is an unlikely ally in the form of the dealerships. Although dealerships have frequently butted heads with the aftermarket over claims that automotive locksmiths and other aftermarket professionals eat into their market share, they may be less inclined to side with the manufacturers if it comes to completely removing keys from their vehicles. As key replacement from the dealer still proves to be a huge cash cow for the dealerships and they are unlikely to be quietly resigned to losing a decent revenue source for the sake of progress alone.

The points above suggest that there will still be life in the industry for at least the short to mid-term, but change will inevitably come, so, how and when do we need to think of changing our business models?

Do we need to diversify now?

The answer will always be yes, but that doesn’t mean change has to be drastic. A measured approach to diversifying is always better than an ill-thought-out and rushed one. As we see the gradual changes in how the future of vehicle security is evolving it will be clearer where the right areas to diversify are. The key to diversifying in any industry is to first examine your core competencies. What is it that you do best? Then look at other places those competencies can be applied. Automotive locksmiths have had to adapt to many changes in technology over the years, meaning that one of their core competencies is the ability to adapt. Spending your time  discovering new methods of gain entry and programming a vehicle's immobiliser via OBD on a myriad of different makes and models innately breeds versatility. This adaptability will put them in good stead when it comes to the changes ahead.

Industry Opinions

There are a lot of conflicting opinions within the industry on how things will look in the next ten or even five years. Here are the thoughts of Peter Wynard of Lock Swindon who believes that the end of the car key is closer than we think.

“I predict within the next 18 months biometric secure Smartphone systems will be starting, tracking and securing new vehicles on an industry-wide scale. Already Connect2Car and OnStar's apps are monitoring the oil life, tyre pressure and remaining fuel, as well as allowing access to the vehicle and starting it - remotely if required. Add to this the ability to locate your vehicle in a busy car park by remotely sounding the horn and flashing the lights and it's no wonder the tech-savvy generations are ready to take to phone car control in a big way.

The manufacturers will offer their own apps for a while, I'm sure, but generic systems will no doubt overtake them, in the same way, the supply of copy blanks overtook manufacturers' own blank keys.”

Next, we have the counter-argument from Dean Sanderson of 3D Group UK.

“I think it's in the minds of any automotive locksmith supplier and anyone in the industry (well, it should be). We all know technology advances. We all know in time the auto locksmith industry will change but, and this is a big but, with the recent technology flaws of keyless entry vehicles manufactures will be proceeding cautiously and may delay that transition to keyless vehicles. Five years ago, we predicted it would be around now that things started changing, although there are signs of replacements to car keys, there hasn’t been any considerable saturation in the market.

Most manufacturers still make all their cars with keys and they always want to make more money so charging people extra for an app to open their vehicles as an add-on makes sense. BMW for instance, already has a system in place to use your phone for opening your car, but it's an expensive luxury which many people won't pay for.

I do feel within the next 10 year there will be a shift but, at present people are still programming keys for 5 or even 10 year old cars. So I don't see things changing in the automotive locksmith industry any time soon!.”

Do you want to give us your opinion on this issue? If so you can email us at [email protected].

Thanks for reading the 3D Group team.


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