“Cloning” is one of those buzzwords that have crept into our daily language in this new age of technology. More often than not, you hear the term used interchangeably with duplication, but in reality, a clone is much more than a simple duplicate. In the biological world, clones are identical...
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“Cloning” is one of those buzzwords that have crept into our daily language in this new age of technology. More often than not, you hear the term used interchangeably with duplication, but in reality, a clone is much more than a simple duplicate. In the biological world, clones are identical down to a microscopic level. In our world of transponder keys, a clone key may look very different from the original, but the electronic information transmitted by the keys is identical to the point of being indistinguishable from one another. Key cloning allows an unlimited number of keys because the vehicle cannot distinguish one clone key from another.
In order to understand the difficulty involved in the process of cloning, you must first understand the different types of transponders that can be cloned. Most transponder keys fall into one of three broad categories: Fixed Code, Rolling Code, or Encrypted. But, before we can understand how these types of transponders are different from each other and what is involved in cloning them, we need to understand basic transponder technology.
Automotive Transponder Basics
The first transponder system used on domestic vehicles was the Ford system, introduced in 1996. That early system used a transponder contained in a glass cylinder that was inserted into a chamber in the head of the key during the manufacturing process. The transponder inside the glass cylinder is a simple radio frequency (RF) transmitter / receiver connected to a tiny computer chip. (The term “Transponder” is shorthand for Transmitter / Responder.)
When the transponder is exposed to an electromagnetic field of the proper frequency and strength, an electrical charge is induced in the antenna coil inside the transponder and stored in a capacitor until enough power is available to power the transmitter. When the capacitor is charged, it then powers up the radio transmitter to broadcast a very weak signal back to the vehicle. (The process of charging the capacitor and then broadcasting the information only takes milliseconds.) That signal is then detected and analyzed by the theft-deterrent module (TDM) in the vehicle.
If the TDM detects an authorized signal, it sends a “Run” signal to the other computers in the vehicle that will allow the car to start. If an incorrect signal or no signal is detected, the “Run” signal will not be sent and the vehicle will not start.
The technology has improved greatly and the information that is exchanged between the transponder and the TDM is now much more complex, but the basic system remains the same. On most vehicles, the TDM is built into the transceiver ring that surrounds the ignition lock. When the “Run” signal is transmitted to the vehicle computer, that computer can control several systems, including the starter, fuel pump, fuel injectors, and ignition system.
Cloning a transponder key is a two-step process that includes reading, analyzing and storing the information transmitted by the original key, and then programming the clone key to transmit information that is indistinguishable from the information transmitted by the original key. But in transponder cloning, as in life, the devil is truly in the details. The information transmitted by the transponder is incredibly complex, and that very complexity is patented and copyrighted, which brings legal issues as well as technological issues into any discussion.
Fixed Code Transponders
The earliest transponders are incredibly simple in comparison to most of the transponders in use today. The information broadcast by these fixed code transponders is always the same. In essence, each transponder has a unique serial number that it broadcasts whenever the transponder is exposed to the proper electromagnetic field. The original Ford system used a Texas Instruments transponder that had the potential for 74 quadrillion different combinations. For all intents and purposes, every fixed code transponder in this system has a unique code.
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