Friday, January 16, 2015

Keyless Cars, Brainless Humans

Phones and other electronic devices may be smarter, but people seem to be heading the other way into a brainless stupor.

 It's not just the kids who literally cannot be separated from their phones without psychological and even physical trauma. There's an even more serious form of dependency, and it is becoming less and less avoidable, even for those who reject it.

 For instance the keyless car. An item in Consumer Reports recently affirmed that new cars in all price ranges are coming equipped with this technology. What is this electronic marvel? It allows you to start your car without sticking a physical key into a physical slot. You just push a button on your device, known as the key fob (even though there is no key attached to it.)

 What a miracle! You can start your car with your hands full of something else--your smartphone probably. Although you've had to push a button on the fob to get into the car, and then you still have to push another button in the car. But you don't need that damn inconvenient key.

 So let's start with the basic rule of electronic wonders in and on your car, which is that, for all their benefits, they are each something else that can go wrong. Usually more than one something else. And almost always nothing you can fix yourself.

 So there are things that can go wrong with your fob, such as the batteries, and if you don't have a backup system (electronic or key), you're screwed. You ain't moving. It may mean a tow, and it definitely means time and money.

 But that's minor compared to the much more likely possibility--you misplace or lose the fob. Then without a mechanical key system, you are really really screwed. And CR says replacing the fob could cost hundreds of dollars, and who knows how much time and trouble.

 Think about it. When somebody swiped my jacket with my car keys in the pocket, I got someone to drive me home, wait a minute while I got my duplicate key, then he drove me back to my car. Duplicate keys cost a few bucks, and you can make as many as you want and stow them in as many convenient places as you wish, so losing your car keys is not a catastrophe.  Many people attach a duplicate to the car itself.

 But for the dubious benefits of a "keyless" ignition, you still have to have that fob (although eventually there will be an ap on your phone device, which will make losing that even more catastrophic), and the cost of losing it is much much greater than losing that terrible old fashioned key.

 Behind this is the survival principle of redundancy, along with hedging your bets with alternatives (a gas stove that operates even when the electricity is off, etc.) Everybody loses stuff, so you cut down the consequences with redundancy (i.e. duplicate keys.) That is, while you can still buy a car that allows you to start it with a key.

 And that's the most brainless part of it. An entire society so dazzled with new toys that they never bother to think ahead to what could go wrong, and what the comparative consequences might be. It's great for the car companies etc. who sucker you into this, and then charge you hundreds of dollars for a fob, and thousands for extra electronic toys that may or may not improve the operation of your vehicle, but certainly make it harder and more expensive to repair. When something goes wrong. And something always does.

 But you might have paid tens of thousands of dollars for no alternative. How smart is that?


Anonymous said...

Electronic FOBs have a physical magnetic key that pulls out of the FOB. If the battery fails, you press the key against the start button to start your car. Same deal with unlocking your car.

How many times have you actually lost your car key and had to get a new one? Many physical car keys cannot be cut at a hardware store and require going through a dealer as well.

Compare that to how many times you've locked your keys in your car. That's impossible with keyless entry. The car knows you screwed up. The moment you lock the door, the car unlocks and beeps at you.

Or if you drive places with more people than just yourself, it's incredibly handy to unlock the doors for everyone using your FOB, so they don't have to wait for you to get to your door, insert a physical key, and do whatever your particular car requires to unlock all of the doors. Same deal with unlocking and opening the car trunk. Same deal with activating your car's emergency lights/horn in an emergency where you're walking to your car (ask anyone who doesn't like walking to their car in a darkened parking lot).

Basically, how convenient is it to lock your house door, put your keys in your pocket, and do whatever all day in your car and never grab for your keys again until you're back at your front door at the end of the day? It's incredibly convenient.

As for 'electronic toys' in a car, I don't know what you're referring to. Music through satellite radio, Pandora or a digital music player? A rear back-up camera? Satellite map navigation? Smart cruise control that maintains X car lengths from the car in front of you? Beeping when you're drowsy and begin to drift out of your lane? Emergency alert breaking when you're about to collide with the car in front of you? All wonderful additions. Wonderful. Some are life-saving toys.

BK said...

Thanks for your detailed response.

It is impossible to lock the keys in my old Volvo, because it takes a key to lock the driver's door. No electronics necessary.

I'm sure safety features--when they work--are a good thing, if you can afford them. But the main problem my post was about has gone unaddressed in your response: the cost of losing the fob when it is necessary to start your car, and the lack of redundancy.

Anonymous said...

The cost of a FOB includes the cost of its manufacture and customization to your car, lifetime tracking of each car's ID (so the FOB unlocks your car, and your car alone), and authenticating you as the legal owner of the car (so that nobody under any condition could ever deceptively request and receive a FOB that opens your car). That authentication would likely take place at a dealership, so count dealerships as a needed step in the process, and the dealer isn't helping you for free (e.g., he's billing the manufacturer).

Compare that to how recklessly easy it is to make a copy of any other type of key at a hardware store, no questions asked. The top-of-the-line security for physical keys is to cut the words "do not duplicate" into the key. That security measure doesn't work much of the time.

Add to the FOB's cost the need to be able to manufacture a new FOB (or store vast quantities of replacement FOBs) for the next, say, 30 years.

Consider how fast technology changes. Could you go back to IBM and expect them to give you replacement parts for your 8086 desktop PC from 1981? (You know, the kind with no hard drive, and you insert a 5" floppy DOS disk and wait for the computer to warm up.)

And yet, that's what a car manufacturer needs to do so that when its clumsy customers lose their FOB decades from now they know they'll be able to get a replacement FOB.

Is this fuss worth it? Yes, for the many benefits I cited in my previous comment.