The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

Lament In The Key Of Life

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Lament In The Key Of Life
By Maureen McDonald
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

Somewhere between the house and the great beyond my 2014 Volkswagen key fob disappeared. I did the usual. Rummaged through coats, closets and every drawer. Fortunately, I had a backup key. Unfortunately, a replacement runs $320.

The service consultant blames it on the high-tech immobilizer, the high-tech guardian of the vehicle that makes it harder to steal. Inside the plastic key fob is a microchip called a transformer. When you press the “start” button with the key somewhere nearby, the reader coil picks up the transponder signal, verifies its match to the vehicle and enables the car to start.

If the signal is incorrect, it shuts down the car. No go. The key fob might not let you into the car at all if the chip doesn’t recognize its mate. Nearly all cars built in the last decade have fancy key fobs as the automakers seek to reduce thefts. But it sure is more difficult than getting a key made by the local locksmith.

Electronic keys do stall out a theft, but getting a new key made is highway robbery. You can’t trick the system with a cheap alternative. sells dozens of key fobs for under $20. I bought one figuring I could save a couple hundred bucks and spend the difference on auto detailing. Not so fast.

I take my key fob to Suburban Volkswagen in Troy, MI, where the service consultant frowns upon sight. He sees several people a month who come in with an Amazon envelope, starry eyed, until the truth is known. Programming a key, any key, runs a whopping $130. There’s a ghost of a chance the key fob might work, it looks like a real VW version.

Some vehicle lines are less expensive. But VW is known for over engineering its product components. It is the German way.

Suburban VW gives me a break, lets a technician program it free. It failed miserably. VW’s technology makes it impossible to reprogram a chip from another vehicle, so you can’t take a key off a valet service board, have a copy made and drive off with someone else’s car. You can’t use a cheap chip and pass it off as the real thing.

immobilizer appears to do its job well, even at a price. Customers must have the work done at a dealership with specialized equipment to program the chip and laser cut a new key. Some sophisticated shops can do the work, but I couldn’t find one in Metro Detroit.

Even though the cost is exorbitant, you are better off with two sets of keys. If you lost your other set, you could face a $1000 tow bill, plus a wait up to two weeks to get the proper key from the factory.

As I lamented my problem to a friend at the bar, he dangled a “tile” in my face. Was I supposed to get sleepy, hypnotized, and accept a date from him? No. He had the answer to memory loss, that frustrating experience of lost keys and short memory lapses.

“Tile Mate,” which also sells on Amazon, is a Bluetooth tracker smaller than a Ghirardelli chocolate square. You loop it onto keychain or attach it to your cell phone, so you can find it fast. You use your smart phone to summon the button on the key ring. With luck your coat will start jingling. The battery lasts up to a year.

Meanwhile, have a place you always keep your keys. Both sets. You’ll always find a key when you want to go somewhere.