An Overview of Keyless Remotes

I’ve been an automotive locksmith for over 35 years, and keyless remotes have been around for about half of that time. Through the years, I have learned that only two rules apply when it comes to working with keyless remotes: There are no...


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I’ve been an automotive locksmith for over 35 years, and keyless remotes have been around for about half of that time. Through the years, I have learned that only two rules apply when it comes to working with keyless remotes:

There are no rules.

When in doubt, see rule number one

Admittedly that sounds like a joke, but it’s really not. There are so many factors involved in doing business in the remote field that it makes herding cats seem easy by comparison. I could never cover everything about remotes in the space I have available here, but I will try to address the basics of automotive remotes.

System Types

Basically, automotive remote systems come down to two major types: factory installed and after-market. By far the easiest to deal with and most common are the factory installed systems. With these systems, you have some hope of consistency, and when all else fails, the consumer can usually go to the dealer for replacement remotes. The after-market systems are much more complex, with many options and as many different types of installations as there are installers out there.

The real problem comes in when the owner has already lost all of the remotes to the vehicle and you have to determine if the vehicle was equipped with a factory system or an after-market system. Sometimes this job alone can make you feel like a detective without any clues. The good news is that keyless remotes are now standard equipment on the vast majority of new vehicles, and most after-market systems are confined to older vehicles.

With either type of system, your job will be easier if the customer still has a remote – even a non-working remote. A lot of information can be obtained from even the remains of a remote that has been run over by a car or rescued from a watery grave. If you have no remote, your job will be a lot harder, and the first question that you need to answer is: “Was the system factory installed or aftermarket?”

Remote Types

All of the remotes in this article operate on “Radio Frequencies” (RF). Other types of remotes use “Infra-Red” (IR) like the remote for your TV, but those systems are rare and as a general rule there is not much you can do outside of replacing the batteries.

RF remotes operate within frequency ranges that are regulated in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Each RF remote has an “FCC ID Number,” usually located on the cover of the remote, but may also be found on the inside. Having this number will go a long way toward identifying the correct replacement remote. Photo 1 shows the back of a typical remote and the information that appears there. This particular remote is for a GM product and the part number for the remote is also included.

Most remotes are essentially short-range radio transmitters that broadcast a series of coded signals. The signals that are sent are decoded by the vehicle as instructions to perform simple tasks such as to unlock the driver’s door, unlock all the doors, open the trunk, turn on the interior lights, start the engine, or sound the alarm. The complexity of the signal varies depending on the system, but the newer the remote system, the more complex the signal will be.

With all of the wireless gadgets on the market, the airwaves are getting more crowded. In order to assure that a remote only does the job it is intended to do, and only on one specific vehicle, the signal must be complex enough to be distinguished from all of the other RF signals surrounding us.

Early remotes used a “Fixed Code” system of preset codes for each button on the remote. That code never changed throughout the life of the remote. The code for individual buttons on the remote was specific for the application, and if you had two or more remotes for the same vehicle, the information sent from each remote for any specific function was identical. The difference between individual remotes was an ID signal that identified the particular remote. The ID signal was incorporated into the signal for each instruction sent from the remote. On early systems, the process of programming the remote into the vehicle basically involved teaching the car to recognize the ID signal of the new remote. If you bought the proper replacement remote for your vehicle, the functions of each button were pre-programmed into the remote out of the box. All you had to do to teach the car to recognize the new remote’s ID signal.

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