$500 for a New Car Key?

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As bad as the government is about making new cars cost a fortune by issuing regulatory fatwas (such as “fleet average” fuel economy requirements) the automakers themselves are just as guilty. Maybe more so, because much of the stuff they are engineering into new cars is stuff that they could leave out since there’s no law (yet) requiring them.

For example, push-button (keyless) ignition.

Go back five years and this was an exotic feature you encountered in a few very high-end cars – which is where a feature like this belongs because it doesn’t really add any functionality, just some “wow factor” – and, of course, expense. A lot of expense. Instead of a physical key you insert into a lock, then turn – you’ve got a key fob transmitter that “talks” to the car’s ignition system. You don’t turn anything. Just push the “start” button on the dash or console and the engine fires up. Push the button again to turn off the engine. This is neato-torpedo, I guess – until the fob stops transmitting because you forgot to take it out of your pants pocket and it went through a “super” wash cycle. Or maybe you just lost it. Now, you’ll feel the dark side of technology. Instead of going to Lowes and having a duplicate key cut for $5 you’ll be heading to the dealership – because only the dealership can fix the push-button ignition. It is proprietary technology; their technology. Instead of $5, you could be looking at $500.

For a new car key.

God help you if the problem runs deeper – like some defect with the internal guts/computer gremlins inside the steering column that run the show. Used to be you could just pop out the lock cylinder in the steering column and pop in a new one, easy-peasy Japaneesy. It cost maybe $75. That figure is about two-thirds the hourly labor rate you’ll be paying to have a “technician” chase down whatever glitch has developed in your car’s “operating system.”

Parts not included.

Note: The keyless ignition system is not the same animal as remote keyless entry. For the latter you can still get relatively reasonably priced replacements on the aftermarket (as well as at the dealer) for about $75 or so. The keyless ignition stuff is different. It allows you (or someone else) to start and drive the car without a physical key – not just get into the car. The automakers are – understandably – reluctant to allow anyone but their own authorized dealers to access the codes/software and so on that comprise the working guts of the keyless ignition.

So when the push-button ignition system malfunctions, or you’ve lost your transmitter, you’re in their clutches.

And of course, stuck.

If you’re rich, no big deal. You pay what they say and drive on. But most of us aren’t. Yet more and more cars (I test drive new ones every week) including more and more modestly priced, $25k-ish family-type cars, are coming through equipped with this technology. It is being pushed hard by the automakers because, well, there’s a lot of money in it. The profit margins are large at point-of-sale and even more so down the road, when the system gets buggy or you lose the transmitter. These are things you cannot fix yourself – not unless you are an MIT grad with a full array of factory diagnostic tools and equipment, anyhow.

I would just say no, myself.

The problem is that it’s becoming hard to just say no.

Just like cell phones, which are equally inessential yet depressingly ubiquitous, push-button ignition (and more besides) is becoming a default standard in new cars. Automaker agit-prop has convinced the masses that they absolutely must have such things – just like they succeeded in convincing minivan-driving Moos who drive significantly faster than the posted speed about as often as Newt Gingrich goes for a jog that they must have 17 inch alloy wheels and 55-series low-aspect ratio $150 a piece “sport” tires.

Lots of money in that, too.

In a couple of years – probably sooner – it will be as hard to find a car without push-button start as it is to find a car without power windows or ABS brakes today.

Physical keys are on their way to becoming curiosities of a bygone era – like the paid-for home and having more than $50 in your bank account.

I wonder whether there’s a connection… .

Reprinted with permission from EricPetersAutos.com.

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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