Following the surge in car thefts and ‘joy riding’ in the late 1980’s - a trend that swept across western Europe - insurance companies began to feel the pinch. Despite rising sales of car alarms, car thieves continued to steal vehicles, often wrecking or burning cars rather than simply abandoning them, costing millions of pounds every year, and causing insurance premiums to rocket.
The introduction of anti-theft immobiliser devices was a direct result of pressure from insurance companies, who insisted that car manufacturers introduce better security measures. Although it had been possible for some years to retro-fit immobilisers, these early types were unwieldy, and usually had to be professionally fitted, adding to the cost.
Around 1994, the first integral immobilisers began to appear - installed as standard by car manufacturers. Within just two years, every vehicle sold in Europe, almost without exception, had an onboard immobiliser system. If you own a car manufactured after 1995, your car key is chipped, whether it has buttons for the remote control or not. The immobiliser can’t be switched on and off like an alarm, but even if you don’t know it, your key is programmed. If your key has buttons, these only operate the remote control.
The principle behind onboard immobilisers is very simple - if you attempt to start the car, the vehicle’s management system senses it and transmits a signal to the key demanding a coded password. When the correct key is used, and the password accepted, the car will start, but if an unprogrammed key is used, the vehicle is ‘immobilised‘ and will not start. The challenge signal from car to key and the answering signal from the key is a ‘transmitter-responder’ system, so the keys have become known as ‘transponder’ keys.
As a result of developments in immobiliser sophistication, the level of car thefts has dropped significantly, and the cost of insurance cover now reflects this, with insurance companies offering cheaper, more competitive quotes in comparison with what had once been forecast. However, there is an increased cost to the motorist when spare keys are required. Car keys are no longer just pieces of metal and plastic. The heads conceal a programmed microchip more powerful than the most advanced personal computers were only a quarter of a century ago.
When it comes to programming spare keys, there are different methods for different vehicles due to the fact that there are more than thirty different chips now in use. The first transponder chips had a single fixed code. With the right programming equipment these were readily copied, and most large cities had a specialist locksmith with the facilities to copy these keys.
However, car dealers, who had lost revenue due to competition from other outlets, argued that an anti-theft device that could be copied by anyone with the right equipment was not entirely secure. So, the manufacturers made the immobilisers more sophisticated, and the new programming methods for each generation of chips meant that main dealers regained their status as the only source of copy keys. Once again, it didn’t take too long before rival programming systems were developed, and leading locksmiths investing in the new key systems were able to offer competitive alternatives to car dealerships.
The most recent generation of transponder chips must be programmed and then enrolled into the vehicle’s management system - which means these keys cannot presently be copied over the counter. The car must also be programmed to accept a new key. These keys are relatively expensive compared to traditional car keys, but it is part of your anti-theft system. What you spend on a key nowadays is still a huge saving on what your insurance would have cost if immobiliser systems had not been available.
It will only be a matter of time before the technology which allows locksmiths to offer cheaper alternatives becomes available at selected outlets. At the moment, we can copy the vast majority of the transponder chips currently in use, and we await news that the means to copy them all has become available. Watch this space for the latest news.