As if adjusting to modern roads and traffic isn't enough to drive you round the twist, a new problem is rearing its head: keys. In the old days, cars were started with a button, which was fair enough because honesty was presumed and surely nobody would steal something as big and substantial as a car, would they? Early motorists soon realised that this was folly, leading to the debut of the key-operated ignition switch. But an ignition switch is really just a fancy way to join a couple of wires, and it didn't take thieves long to learn how to bypass the ignition switch with a length of their own wire. This gave rise to the famous term “hot-wiring” and was a routine method of car theft until the motor industry began to fight back with increasingly sophisticated combinations of alarms and immobilisers.
Modern cars though are taking a different approach. Perhaps the easiest way to understand a modern car is to regard it as a collection of components all controlled by a few computers. Almost any input made in a modern car by either driver or occupants, is processed or moderated by a computer – indeed, the Toyota Prius has had “brake-by-wire” since it was launched in South Africa. This takes the place of a physical connection between the brake pedal and the wheel brake calipers. A computer looks at the input being supplied to the brake pedal by the driver and decides what pressure needs to be applied to the calipers at the wheels. This is a daunting prospect for technophobes, but it means that a modern car has become a complex digital environment into which it is easy to insert almost impregnable electronic entry and anti-theft systems.
And this is the reason why the traditional key is rapidly disappearing from the scene: a modern electronic vehicle key card or fob's purpose is no longer to 'join wires' – it is to give a computer permission to join them. And, just as in the old days when illicit copies of your traditional key could be made, the key could break, or the lock could wear out over time, modern car keys are bringing a new set of headaches. The American Automobile Association says it rescued over four million motorists who locked themselves out of their vehicles in 2012, and it adds that this number has not dropped significantly in the past five years. One of the drawbacks of keyless entry has been known for a couple of decades already: electronic circuits do not like moisture, as anyone who has ever dropped their car remote in a puddle will know to their cost. Fortunately remotes are cheap and easily replaceable, but if you own a vehicle with a fully electronic key and 'smart' functions such as driver profiles and automatic unlocking, do yourself a favour and phone your franchised dealer to find out what a replacement key costs. (It is best to be sitting down when you receive the answer to your enquiry!)
South African AA Members are as prone to key troubles as their US counterparts: nearly one in twenty AA Members needed help with a key problem in 2012, with about 80 percent of key callouts for Members who had been locked out of their vehicles with the key still inside. So it seems that while modern technology may make entering and starting one's vehicle more convenient, it is still being defeated by that most human of emotions: forgetfulness.
The AA will be there to help you out of this frustrating bind, but to ensure the key to your modern marvel works reliably, take care to protect it from the elements, avoid exposing it to hard shocks or extreme temperatures, become familiar with all its features, and replace its battery at the recommended intervals. If you don't, you might one day walk up to your car and tug hopefully on the door handle, only to find that “...computer says no!”