Fob facts

Gone are the days when you could get your car keys copied at a department store or a shoe shop. On the plus side, copying keys was much easier back then, but on the minus side anyone with a copied key could unlock the driver’s side door … and further back in time once they’d gained access to a vehicle they’d need another, different key copy to start it and drive away.

Nowadays, of course, even though drivers only need the one key to unlock the door and start the engine, merely copying that key just won’t work for car thieves any more. Since 1995 vehicle manufacturers have by law been obliged to include a factory-installed immobiliser system in every vehicle they produce, and for the most part that system has depended on a small chip mounted in the vehicle’s key.

That chip (a.k.a. the transponder) has been programmed to respond to the vehicle’s immobiliser system with a complex code – and if that code doesn’t exactly match what the immobiliser system is expecting, the car won’t start.

But since then, technology has moved on – especially when it comes to unlocking vehicles, starting the engine and keeping those vehicles safe and secure once they’re parked up again. Although a bladed key is still very common, especially in older vehicles, the key fob has come into its own, but not just for operating door locks and engine ignition.

Of course a key fob still unlocks and locks vehicle doors, and can do so in two ways: originally they’d need the press of a button to do the unlocking. But then manufacturers, always looking to make life more convenient for their customers, designed key fobs to respond to a radio signal from their designated vehicles. As soon as the fob is within range of the vehicle’s radio signal, the doors will unlock automatically … and once the fob is out of range again, the doors will lock once more.

And on some vehicle makes and models, once the key fob is within range it’s possible for drivers with their arms full of shopping to open up the boot – just by moving their foot backwards and forwards beneath the car.

And like the now somewhat old-fashioned transponder chip in a bladed car key, fobs also have a code programmed into them. So instead of having to physically push a key blade into the ignition barrel, drivers can just press the start button once the fob is inside the car.

Some fobs give drivers the option of starting up their car without unlocking the doors or windows – always very useful to warm up the inside on a cold winter morning, and since all means of entry are securely locked, a very safe way of doing it.

Then again, summertime means the inside of a car can get very hot indeed (think how much heat black leather seats can absorb) so certain vehicle manufacturers have programmed fobs to open all the windows and the sunroof at once, to let the car – and those boiling hot black leather seats – cool down before anyone opens the door and climbs aboard.

Another neat little trick some key fobs can perform is folding in a car’s wing mirrors – always very useful when parking on a narrow street. And often equally useful when you’re driving along such a street and it looks like the lorry heading towards you might just take off your driver’s side wing mirror. One press of a button and the mirror folds in, nicely out of harm’s way.

Then again, some key fobs can do more with wing mirrors than swing them and keep them out of harm’s way. How frustrating do you find it when someone else has been driving and the rear-view mirror that used to give you that panoramic view of the road behind you has been tipped so much that all you can see are the rear seats? And that wing mirror you so carefully adjusted to give the perfect view of the edge of the pavement when you’re reversing into a parking spot now gives you a glorious view of the bonnet of the car you’re trying not to back into.

And the answer to this? Separate key fobs for separate drivers, with each fob “remembering” its user’s many driving preference settings – from how far back the driver’s seat should be to how the rear view mirrors should be angled … and on some models even controlling the temperature inside the car.

Oh, and talking of reversing into a parking spot, it’s now possible to step outside of your car and use the key fob as a remote control – or even, these days, just stand there and watch your car park itself, handsfree.

The fobs for some makes and models also include a panic button that sets off vehicle alarm systems – useful when you’ve spent the day traipsing round a shopping centre only to return to its underground car park – and don’t they all look the same – knowing that your car’s definitely there. Somewhere. A quick press of that panic button, and you’ve got some idea of where your car is when you hear the alarm, and getting closer, you see its flashing headlights.

That panic button, by the way, might just come in handy when you’re at home, too: if it should ever happen that you hear intruders trying to break in at night, a press of that panic button will set your car alarm sounding and its lights flashing – which may well scare those intruders away. Of course, that means you’ll need to keep a fob on your bedside table (another very good reason for having a duplicate made).

Perhaps the ultimate in key fobs, at least for the time being, is BMW’s display key, with its colour screen (yes, screen) that provides information such as door and window lock status, fuel level and how far the car will go until it’s time to refuel. It also controls the heating system and, naturally, the remote parking facility

But with so many potential functions in fobs these days it’s not surprising that their batteries run out sooner than expected, and that’s why there’s usually an old-fashioned key blade hidden within the fob, accessible with the press of a button and a bit of pulling.

All in all, these days key fobs are more complex than ever, meaning there’s so much more that could go wrong. And if you take a non-functioning fob back to a dealership you may well find yourself having to wait days for a repair or replacement (and let’s not even think about how much it could cost you).

And that’s what we’re here for: no matter what the problem may be, whether you’re trying to get out of your garage, or leave the office parking lot – or even if you’re stuck on an unfamiliar country lane anywhere in London and the Home Counties, it takes just one phone call and one of our mobile technicians will be with you in less than an hour. He’ll then repair or replace that fob, make sure it’s perfectly synched with your car … and have you back on your way again in next to no time. And all for much, much less than a dealership would charge you.