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Image The new integrated key fob for the Ford Fusion features three ergonomically spaced buttons in a concave recess that's thumb-friendly and allows quick access to door lock and unlock functions, as well as the Fusion's trunk-lid release. 

Driven by technology, customer convenience and industry efforts to reduce auto theft, the car key has undergone quite an evolution since the simple brass version that started the Ford Model T. Ford Motor Company brands have created high-tech keys that do more than unlock your door or start your car.

 

One of the biggest changes, as owners of the Ford Fusion, the Mercury Milan and the Lincoln Zephyr will notice, is there is no more fob to fumble with.

“You used to have a computer chip in the key and a microprocessor in the fob. Now it’s all integrated into the ignition key,” says John Van Wiemeersch, supervisor, Advanced Vehicle Technology for Ford Motor Company. “The benefit to the customer is that it’s a more compact device.”

Key fob technology was developed in the 1980s as a nifty device to remotely lock and unlock doors, roll down windows or arm car alarms. But vehicle security became a key driver in the 1990s, when thefts were costing Americans billions of dollars a year. Then the anti-theft ignition immobilizer was born.

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Ford was among the first automakers to use ignition immobilizers, with its use of the SecuriLock™ system on the 1996 Mustang GT. An ignition immobilizer consists of an electronic chip in the key that communicates with the car’s engine computer. When the driver inserts the key in the ignition, the transponder reads a rolling algorithm code on the key chip and relays it to the car’s computer. If the code is correct, the computer starts the car. The code is reset with a different series of numbers each time the key is used.

After the SecuriLock introduction, theft rates for the GT fell dramatically, and today, Ford is a leader in using immobilizer systems across its fleet.

“We were innovative at that time,” says Van Wiemeersch. “We are innovative in terms of our ability to get this technology across our fleet, to be there in volume. And we have one of the most secure systems with the strongest code system.”

And the evolution of the key continues — quite possibly spelling the end altogether to that strip of jagged metal called a key. More automakers are offering systems that let drivers enter and start their vehicles key-free.

Jaguar’s Smart Key System, with keyless start and keyless entry, available on the XK, allows the owner to activate the locking and starting systems by simply having a keyless fob in a shirt pocket or purse. As the owner approaches the vehicle, antennas throughout the car pick up the signal and validate the code. Only when the door handle is lifted will the doors unlock. Inside, Smart Key validates the fob’s presence, and with foot engaging the brake allows the owner simply to press the engine “Start-Stop” button and drive off.

“The advantage of this is you just throw it in your shirt pocket or your purse, walk up to the car, open the door, sit down and drive away,” says Van Wiemeersch. “It’s truly a nice hands-free experience.”

Volvo has also developed an innovative key fob called the Personal Car Communicator. It provides information that in certain situations could be crucial to the security of the car owner. By pressing a button, the car owner can within seconds know whether: the car is locked or unlocked, the alarm is activated or not and, more importantly, someone is in the car, which is registered using a highly sensitive heartbeat sensor and an advanced calculation process. It’s the world’s first fob with a heartbeat sensor.

But these new advanced keys take some getting used to. For one, with all their high-tech circuitry, today’s keys can be expensive to replace if lost — from $50 to $300, which includes the hardware and reprogramming. And because these keys operate quite differently from your typical key, especially the keyless systems, there’s a learning curve. For example, users of keyless systems have to remember to turn off the car engine after exiting the car.

So where is the future of the key heading?

“The next evolution will probably be biometrics — recognizing your fingerprints or your irises or your face or speech,” says Van Wiemeersch. “But biometrics entails an order of difficulty that is much higher because it’s hard to recognize biosystems accurately and quickly.”

Source: Ford Motor Company 

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