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It's not just a smartphone, it's a car key

March 12, 2013|By Paul Whitefield
  • Key fobs for Citroen cars on display at the 83rd Geneva International Motor Show this month.
Key fobs for Citroen cars on display at the 83rd Geneva International Motor… (Valentin Flauraud / Bloomberg )

“AAA says smartphones may soon replace traditional car keys.”

Wow, it’s like an episode from “The Twilight Zone.” On Monday, I found someone’s car keys on my lawn, and then on Tuesday, there’s this story. As my colleague Jerry Hirsch wrote on the Highway 1 blog:

The metal car key is fast disappearing, replaced by “smart” electronic car keys and fobs.  Now AAA says it expects smart keys to be transitional technology, soon to be replaced by people’s phones.

Darn! So just a few years from now, instead of car keys, I’ll be finding a phone on my lawn. 

You’re right, that is so much smarter.

Now, it’s true, I’m not what you’d call an early adapter of technology. In fact, just the other day, I was startled when my car radio started talking to me. “Hello, Paul, hello?” a voice said -- and no, it wasn’t Jack from Jack FM. Rather, it was my better half calling me on my Bluetooth-enabled radio, technology that has been around since the dawn of time (at least to my teenage sons) but is new to me.

Still, change is inevitable. As John Nielsen, AAA director of automotive engineering and repair, sees the future:  

“Traditional car keys will likely become obsolete and be replaced by technologies offering even greater security and convenience. Motorists will need to adapt with the technology to avoid the hassle and expense of smart key replacements."

But here’s why I’m not exactly looking forward to AAA’s smart key/smartphone future. Because when you reach a certain, ahem, age, you’ve learned a thing or two about technology. Starting with: Sometimes technology just makes stuff more complicated and more expensive, not simpler and cheaper.

Back in the day, for example, when the TV channel needed changing, you had a knob. And when something went wrong -- the knob broke off, say -- the fix was simple: a pair of pliers. Ever try replacing today’s remote control with a pair of pliers?

Also back in the day, when you lost your car key, a locksmith dinged you $2 or so for a new one. Lost your luxury car’s key lately? Suffice to day, you’ll probably be adding a couple of zeros to that $2 to replace it.

Now, AAA says it responded to 4 million drivers who locked themselves out of their cars last year; it says that number has been pretty much the same over the last five years. And that’s even though more and more cars come with electronic keys and fobs.

So now we have high-tech car keys, or fobs, or whatever, which are way more expensive than the old keys -- but we’re still locking ourselves out of our cars at the same rate. And the future is smartphones, which, last time I checked, are even more expensive than fobs, and more fragile to boot, and just about as prone to being misplaced. Plus, they can be hacked (see Johansson, Scarlett).

But remember what AAA's Nielsen said: “even greater security and convenience.” To which I say, "Uh huh, and would you care to check my cable bill -- $200 a month for stuff I used to get for free?"

Still, whining about it isn’t going to change the future. It’s technology; you can’t stop progress.

So I just have one little request. Will there be a way to program my new smartphone/car key to say: “Hey, I’m over here, between the sofa cushions”?


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