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Key Diagnostics And Programming

It happened to me, I left my car keys in my pants and threw them in the washing machine. Thirty minutes later, I heard a knocking noise coming from the dryer. The key was toast. 

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What are the paths to repair? There are two options. First, go to the dealer and have them make another key. Second, try to find a locksmith who may or may not be able to create new keys. Both options would require the car to be dropped off somewhere. 

There is a third option, and one your customers will really appreciate: tool up to program keys at your shop.

With more vehicles using remote fobs and proximity keys with sophisticated electronics inside, replacing a damaged key due to an accident like mine will become more common. 

The key is only one small component of the total immobilizer or security system/strategy. With some vehicles, six different modules in the car might use the code from the key. If the vehicle has a new module, relearning the keys and key programming tools might be required.  

If you think that programming keys is just a connecting to the OBDII port and putting a blank key on a programming pad, this is the wrong way to approach this service and tool costs. Most of the time, a key tool will be required for diagnostics.  

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What is going on?

Immobilizers and keyless entry have done great things for vehicle owners. New vehicles are tough to steal thanks to more advanced immobilizer systems. These new systems have been more useful for discouraging thieves by making the most expensive vehicle parts unusable by requiring security information. Keyless entry has made it possible to enter a car without pressing a button or start a car from inside the house. 

The implication for shops and technicians is that no start, no crank and module diagnostics have a possible fault with the security and keys.

Diagnostics

Key and security system diagnostics are not that much different than driveability diagnostics. The biggest difference is that access to the vehicle through the OBDII port might be limited because of the lack of a valid key. This can limit communication with some modules. 

This is where the differences between locksmith tools for coding keys and diagnostic tools that can code keys for shops become apparent. In the past, key coding tools resembled 1980s hand-held computer games. Many of the tools have limited coverage and capabilities to perform diagnostics.   

With the remote fobs and proximity keys on more vehicles that are out of warranty, being able to diagnose and service keys is quickly becoming an essential skill.    

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Three situations might require key programming capabilities at your shop. First, being able to diagnose and program keys can be a tool as part of some no-start diagnostics. Second, you may run into a situation where a key or fob needs to be reprogrammed to the vehicle if a module was replaced. Third, a customer might want an extra key or all the original keys were lost.

You might think that key programming is a job for a locksmith or specialist, but the market is changing. Brick and mortar locksmith and dealership parts departments can cut key blanks, but it is up to you to make them work with the vehicle. In the case of some proximity keys, there is no key to cut – it is all up to you.

Reflashing and Reprogramming

Data can go both ways when it comes to some key programming tools. Information from a key can be programmed into a module, or information from an existing model can be programmed onto a key. This tool function can save you if a module has been replaced or reflashed, and the key information is lost. It is also helpful if you are in a situation where all the keys have been lost. 

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For situations like this, you have several options. Some key programming tools and vehicles will allow you to clone key transponders in the vehicle’s memory. The key programming tool communicates with the car to find the information about the existing keys and then burn that code to a new transponder using a specialized attachment for the key. 

On some vehicles, the situation may call for reflashing completely new transponder codes to a module. For some cars, this can be performed through a J2534 interface. Other cases may require the module or EEPROM chip to be removed for reprogramming. Specialized key programming tools let you do it at your shop. 

The key for modern vehicles is more than a key. Modern keys and fobs can start a car remotely, open a rear hatch with a swipe of a foot, and make sure the vehicle is secure against physical and virtual attacks. If you are already servicing these vehicles, you can’t avoid key programming.

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