29 June 2020
THE EVOLUTION OF CAR KEYS: A journey for convenience

While car keys are a matter of course when it comes to cars, there is a lot more to them than just starting your engines.

Ah, car keys. Don’t you just love the feel of them in your palm right after you’ve bought a new car? Have you ever relished sliding it into the keyhole and giving it a good, firm turn to start your car for the first time? OK, maybe that’s a little dramatic. However, there is a certain excitement that the jingle of car keys in your pocket regular keys cannot replicate. Like cars these days, car keys are also becoming more sophisticated. Car keys can now perform a range of functions like summoning your car or doubling as a USB drive while looking aesthetically pleasing.

BMW G20 3 Series being unlocked with an iPhone
From July onwards, BMWs with Digital Key functions can be used with Apple iPhones.

Earlier this week, tech giant Apple announced at their latest WWDC that NFC-based digital keys will soon be supported on Apple devices. For a start, the function will be available after 1 July 2020 on some newly manufactured BMW models. iPhone users will soon be able to unlock their cars using a keyless system housed on their devices. While Apple fanatics might rave about this latest development, the feature was already available on the BMW 3 Series, but only on Samsung devices.

Nonetheless, whether you’re in the iOS or Android camp, technological advancements are now deeply entrenched in our daily lives. Imagining life now without some of these conveniences is difficult. We also probably have forgotten the ‘good old days’. So, let’s rewind and have a look at some fun facts about car keys and how they’ve evolved over time!

But first… 

To help you appreciate how car keys have changed, here are some terms you might want to get acquainted with!

Key fob

Modern car keys now come with more than just a key. A key fob contains a remote and transmitter to lock and unlock a car. Sometimes it can also be used roll the windows up or down, and of course, start the engine. Key fobs can come attached directly to the key, or come as a separate attachment to unlock in case the battery in the key goes flat.

Push button ignition

Depending on who you’re speaking to, the ignition may refer to the switch that is used to start the car. In reality, the ignition system is a complex setup. To keep it simple, turning the ignition switch closes an electric circuit. This generates a high voltage in the car’s battery, which is then sent to each spark plug. The spark plug in turn ignites the fuel-air mixture in the engine’s combustion chamber, thus starting the car’s engine.

Keyless entry systems

The keyless entry system allows a driver to unlock and enter a car without specifically engaging with a locking mechanism. This saves the driver those precious few seconds of digging through pockets or a bag for the keys. The driver only needs to depress a small button near or on the door handle to open the door.

Depending on the car model, the button may not even be present at all. The key fob here acts as both a receiver and a transmitter. It transmits a signal that also allows the car to be started just by pushing the ignition button.

Remote keyless systems

The remote keyless system involves using the remote built into the key fob, which many drivers will find familiar. With a simple push of the button, a car can be locked or unlocked. While the car can be unlocked remotely in some car models, a key is still required in the ignition in order for the engine to start. The remote relies on an infrared signal, while keyless entry systems use radio waves instead.

Symmetrical keys

Symmetrical car keys do not need to be inserted into a lock in a specific direction. They are made of a rectangular blade with a wavy groove cut into the centre of the blade on both sides.

A special key cutting machine is required to ensure a constant groove depth. This design means no more fumbling with key insertion again and accidentally scratching your car in the process. 

All-in-one keys

Today, it would be ludicrous to think that more than one key is required to both unlock a car and start the engine. However, the all-in-one key that performs both functions was only first available in the late 1940s. That said, separate keys for unlocking the car door and starting the engine persisted until the 1960s. 

Keys to lock the car door

When your automobile lacks a top, or even a door, it makes perfect sense not to have a door lock as a security feature. It was only with the popularisation of canopy top cars, doors, and closed roof cars that manufacturers started to include door locks to prevent theft.

Keys for the ignition

So, if automobiles back then didn’t have doors or roofs, what stopped the thieves from making off with them? By making them unable to start the car, of course. Rotary ignition switches were first introduced in the early 1900s. These switches required a key to be inserted and turned into position before the car could be started.

Early ignition key by Bosch, AutoApp
Source: Bosch

At this point, the key functioned purely to unlock the ignition, which still required a separate mechanism to close the circuit.

The original keyless car

Before any key, starting a car was a complex process where a driver had to perform at least ten steps to get the engine running. Doing so required significant training on the driver’s part, and hence security was hardly an issue at that time. Besides the steps required to close the ignition circuit, drivers still had to get out and turn the crank at the front of the vehicle.

This was in itself a dangerous act if you didn’t know what you were doing. As soon as the engine turned over, the crank would sometimes snap in reverse with such force that it could injure or even amputate the operator’s hand if he did not let go quick enough. Also, if the car was parked ‘in gear’, the car could rolled forward and crush its driver, who would be standing directly in front to start the car. Talk about inconvenience!

Back to keyless

In that sense, the evolution of car keys has now come full circle. We are back to where we started – going keyless. However, starting our car now doesn’t require us to break a sweat (or anything else) like before. Keys now come with additional security features to ensure that we can enjoy our rides safely too. How much more convenience is technology going to bring us? Only one way to find out!

Ever wondered about how some car animal mascots came to be? Read more about them here!

Our app is launching soon! Sign up to be a trailblazer and be the first to trial our app. Click here to register.