The electric car market is growing by the day. It’s incredible to see the various hi-tech features they’re bringing to the table. But let’s focus on the basics first – how do you lock/unlock the doors on your EV (Electric Vehicle) or start the engine? Do electric cars still use conventional keys?
Modern electric cars from Tesla, Lincoln, Volvo are going keyless. However, plenty of older EVs are still available on the market that require a key for opening the door and activating the engine. Some manufacturers like Toyota are also still holding onto physical keys.
In this article, I’ll go over the various electric car keys available on the market for locking, unlocking, and starting your EV. I’ll also share their pros and cons so you can get an idea of the benefits and problems with each type of key.
Electric-Car Keys: Back Then and Now
The first all-electric car authorized for the highway was the Tesla Roadster, released in 2008. That model used a physical metal key with a remote fob.
Here’s a great YouTube video from Doug DeMuro reviewing the original Tesla Roadster 2008, where you can catch a glimpse of its key:
Similarly, other EVs released during that time also used conventional car keys.
With further advancements in technology and releases of new EVs, we started to see more high-tech keys come into the mix.
It’s only now, particularly following the release of the Tesla Model 3, that the industry is shifting towards keyless cars.
That said, you can still expect to see physical car keys for a few years now, especially in the budget segment. This is because keyed systems are a viable cost-cutting measure that manufacturers like to explore.
As such, whether or not an electric car has keys will vary between manufacturers and EV models.
On a somewhat similar note, I also wrote a related article about How To Lock Your Tesla While Charging. Check it out and let me know what you think!
Different Types of Electric-Car Keys: Which One Is the Best?
Here’s a quick look at some of the most popular types of car keys used by electric cars over the years:
- Physical Keys
- Remote Keys
- Smart Keys or Key Fobs
- Bluetooth Phone Keys
Let’s go over each of these key types, discussing them in more detail, how they work, and their pros & cons.
Physical keys are old-school metal-based keys, similar to the one you have for the front door of your house.
These are currently going obsolete; however, you can find a few older EV models using a physical key with an attached electronic component for validation, a.k.a. Transponder keys. Besides this, you can also find physical keys with different cuts.
The standard is the flat metal key with a single or double-sided cut. These are super insecure and very easy to lock-pick.
The laser-cut key with a cavity cut right down the middle is a more secure alternative. These are more complicated to replicate and make the locks harder to pick.
That being said, physical keys, including transponder keys, are still relatively insecure compared to the more modern solutions we have in the market.
- Very affordable
- Easier to get a duplicate key if you lost yours
- Not as secure as the other alternatives
Remote keys are your conventional, modern car keys that come with a physical blade attached to a remote base with dedicated buttons for locking and unlocking the car.
These are much more secure compared to physical keys and transponder keys.
It’s nearly impossible for the average criminal to duplicate a remote key unless they have access to the right diagnostic tools. And even then, it’s a long and complicated process.
With remote keys, there’s a security code divided between the key and the car. As such, to duplicate a remote key, you’ll need access to both the security codes.
- Much more secure
- Very hard to duplicate
- More expensive
Smart Keys or Key Fobs
Smart keys, also known as key fobs, are more like remotes than keys. It’s a small device with a couple of buttons for controlling your car. It works on batteries and emits low-frequency signals that your car can pick up from a long distance.
You can potentially lock/unlock your car, sound the horn, and even open the trunk while standing across the parking lot using a smart key.
Some smart keys also offer advanced features that allow you to move your car with the press of a button. This is extremely useful as it enables you to get outside of your car and park it properly.
Another remarkable feature of smart keys is proximity sensors. This allows the car to recognize when its key is nearby and automatically unlock its doors.
Additionally, your car can understand if the smart key is inside the car, detecting which it’ll start the engine.
- Super convenient
- A considerably much safer option
- Impossible for thieves to pick your car lock because there isn’t one
- Very expensive
- Although safe from thieves but at risk of hackers and cybercriminals
Bluetooth or NFC Phone Keys
A smart key is a combination of hardware and software. The hardware technology used in smart keys is found in most modern smartphones. And getting the right software is all about downloading/installing an app.
So why not use your phone as your car key?
Well, that’s precisely what modern companies like Tesla and Hyundai are working on.
For example, the Tesla Model 3 was the first electric car to allow owners to unlock their vehicle with their phone by utilizing Bluetooth LE (Low Energy) found on most modern smartphones.
In contrast, Hyundai EV models leverage NFC capabilities in smartphones to use it as a car key.
- The most convenient option
- Extremely secure
- Super affordable since all you need to do is download the key app
- Your car is compromised if your phone is lost or hacked
Currently, the industry is seeing a shift towards phone keys utilizing Bluetooth or NFC technology. All this started with the Tesla Model 3 when the company decided not to offer their customers a car key.
That said, in the present market, you’ll find all sorts of electric cars, some that use car keys while some that don’t. Older models will have car keys, whereas newer models will either use smart keys or go with smartphone apps.
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