Keyless Ignition Systems: Are They Worth It?
Once the exclusive domain of expensive luxury brands like Lexus and Cadillac, keyless ignition systems are beginning to creep into the mid-level market. Toyota in particular is driving the trend with its Prius and Avalon models. But how practical are they really?
Finding a vehicle with a keyless ignition can be a pricey venture. Toyota is by far the cheapest option. The Prius, with a MSRP of $24,000 comes standard with a keyless ignition. The next step up is the Avalon Limited, at $36,435. From there, keyless ignitions are available on pretty much any luxury car on the market, which of course come at rather luxurious prices.
Pushing a button to start a car? You’re probably already skeptical, and we don’t blame you. The good news is that a car with a push button ignition won’t start unless its corresponding fob (the little remote you use to lock and unlock your car) is within range of the vehicle.
This works because of a technology called Radio Frequency Identification. Think of it just like a bar code, except that it can be read via radio waves. A RFID chip is placed inside the fob and is read by the car’s sensors. You don’t have to worry about a battery running out, because the chip requires no external power supply.
But RFID itself has a major drawback: It only supports 40-bit encryption. Unless you’re a computer scientist, you probably have no idea what that means, so let’s put it into perspective. The Advanced Encryption Standard, which is the standard in encryption that is used by the federal government, is 128-bit.
In other words, RFID’s encryption is weak. To draw another analogy, think of it like using a luggage lock to secure a safe. Anyone with a laptop, the knowledge, and the right accessories can easily unlock and start your car. If you don’t believe us, ask soccer star David Beckham, who had two customized BMW X5s stolen from him, both using keyless ignition systems.
Of course, most of us are not as high profile as Beckham. If you already have a car with keyless entry, then a keyless ignition shouldn’t pose much more of a risk. And unlike traditional ignitions, there’s no physical key that can easily be replicated.
Despite its weak security, RFID technology makes it possible to personalize your vehicle in brand new ways. For instance, the Cadillac STS lets two drivers store their seating, steering wheel, radio, mirror and other preferences on their chips. Audi has made it almost impossible to lock yourself out of their A6 or A8. If the fob is inside the car, the trunk and doors will not lock. BMW’s 7-Series transmits service data to the fob, allowing you to have the car analyzed by a mechanic without even taking the car.
All of that stuff is pretty cool, but other than being unable to lock yourself out, none of it is particularly practical. But there is a market segment that can really appreciate the push button ignition: The disabled, especially arthritics who are thwarted by awkward, hand-cramping keys.
Keyless ignitions are set to offer you a plethora of great features…in the future. Unless you have special needs, keyless ignitions are more of a novelty than a practical technology. We hope to see a price drop and AES implemented in the future. Until then, if you have a lot of money to blow and just love gadgets, keyless ignitions just might be your thing.
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