Transponder Programming Tool Roundup

Sept. 2, 2014
As locksmiths, we are stuck in the middle, balancing the cost of new equipment and updates against the profits generated by automotive work.

Transponder based anti-theft systems first appeared on European vehicles in 1993, and locksmiths and the vehicle manufacturers have been locking horns over these systems ever since.  On one side, you have the vehicle manufacturers who want to provide the best possible security for their customers.  On the other side, you have locksmiths who have to deal with irate and unhappy car owners who have either lost their keys or had them stolen. 

As locksmiths, we know that these things tend to happen at the worst possible times – late at night, on weekends, far from home, or far from a dealership.  Naturally, the dealers want to bring the key replacement business into their own shops, but very few are equipped to deal with key replacement outside of normal working hours, or for vehicles that are over 10 years old, or vehicles that are not owned by the original buyer.

In the beginning, if you wanted to program transponder keys, you had to purchase the same devices that the dealerships used.  Automotive locksmiths were spending a fortune buying machines such as the original NGS, the Tech-II, DART, DRB-III, MUTT, Consult, and a host of others that were designed to program a single make of vehicle. 

Then multi-platform tools began appearing in the aftermarket.  At first, they were very limited and required a great deal of tech support from the manufacturers.  Gradually, these machines improved to the point where locksmiths could compete effectively with many dealerships for the key replacement business.

Predictably, the manufacturers didn’t like this very much, and soon a technology race began that continues today.  On one side, we have the manufacturers changing software and key blanks every chance they get in the name of increased security, but also to bring the key replacement business back to the dealerships.  On the other side, we have the manufacturers of keys and diagnostic equipment trying to keep locksmiths up to date on all the changes.

For those who are willing to pay the price, in both time and money, to stay on top of the ever-changing automotive business, the rewards can be very lucrative.  Let’s take a look at some of the equipment choices that are available to an automotive locksmith today.

Multi-Platform Tools

Multi-platform diagnostic and programming tools normally connect to the vehicle computer by way of a government mandated standardized diagnostic port called the OBD-II port.  All of the tools listed below use this type of connection and are normally powered by the vehicle rather than by their own power.  In some cases vehicle power may not be available, so most machines include an auxiliary cable that will allow you to power the machine from a cigarette lighter or a jump box. 

Normally the software used by a multi-platform machine is based on an abbreviated version of the manufacturer’s software.  The aftermarket machines are focused on programming keys and clearing security related error codes, rather than dealing with the entire vehicle.

Advanced Diagnostics TCode Pro – This multi-platform programming tool is the updated version of the older TCode, which is now known as the “TCode Classic.”  The basic device is sold in several configurations for various worldwide markets.  The North American version of the TCode Pro is sold at four different application levels. 

The basic machine with no software is sold as the “Beginner” level.  The purchaser can then add individual software packaged as needed for different vehicles.  This level would normally be used by locksmiths who only need to service one or two different types of vehicles.

The next step up is known as the “Apprentice” level. This configuration includes 21 software packages covering the more popular vehicles from such manufacturers as GM Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Lexus and others.

The next level up is the “Journeyman” level, which includes all of the “Apprentice” software plus five more software packages for a total of 26 software packages.

The top of the line TCode Pro is the “Master” level that includes 38 different software packages at this time. 

Regardless of which level is purchased, additional software packages can be added as needed.   New software packages and updates to existing packages are also introduced on a regular basis. The machine features touch-screen operation and updates via the Internet and a USB connection.

MVP-Pro – The MVP Pro is essentially the same basic machine as the TCode Pro, but set up differently.  Instead of owning both the machine and the software, you own the machine, but pay a license fee each time you use most of the software.  This license fee is known as a “token” and the price of each token varies according to how many tokens you buy at a time.  There are significant discounts for buying tokens in quantity.

The normal price for a token will vary between $40 and $12, depending on how many you purchase.  Some operations of the machine, such as some remote programming and diagnostic functions such as reading and clearing errors, will not require the use of a token.  Most of the time, you will be using the machine though; you will be using at least one token.  As a general rule, programming keys to a vehicle will require the use of one token unless you also have to pull a PIN number with the machine.  Generally, pulling a PIN number will also require a Token.  As an example, programming a duplicate key for a vehicle such as a PT Cruiser will require the use of two Tokens, one to pull the SKIM code and one to actually program the key.

The Token system offers a locksmith the ability to get into transponder programming at a much lower initial cost than using a traditional machine like the TCode Pro.  With the Token system, you never have to buy updates.  You do need to connect your machine to the internet occasionally so that the operating software can be updated, but there is no charge for this service.  This can be a great advantage for new locksmiths or for those who live in more sparsely populated areas who are only called on to program transponder vehicles occasionally.

Naturally, if you find yourself doing a significant amount of transponder work, a machine like the TCode Pro will be more cost effective in the long run. 

Another way to take advantage of the Token system is to use a standard machine with minimal software for the bulk of your work, but use the MVP Pro for the oddball vehicles that you only see once in a while.  The cost of a few tokens is usually far less that buying software that will be rarely used. 

For more information on The TCode Pro, MVP Pro or any Advanced Diagnostic machine go to:

KeylessRide Hotwire – The Hotwire machine from KeylessRide works in conjunction with a laptop computer to program both keys and remotes for most vehicles.  The system can be purchased without software, and individual software packages can be added on an a-la-carte basis, or you can buy it bundled with the most popular software packages.  In addition, the machine can be supplied with a dedicated laptop computer, or you can provide your own computer.  Like the other machines we’ve seen, an internet connection is not required for programming, but the machine must be connected to the internet when updating.

KeylessRide also offers in-house financing with a variety of different options.  One of the options, the “Hybrid Subscription” option allows access to all software by way of a monthly subscription plus a $10 per vehicle charge for use of the machine.  All of these options offer a locksmith the ability to get into transponder programming with a minimal up-front cost.

For more information go to

Kaba Ilco / Silca TKO – The TKO Machine (Transponder Key Originator) is the updated version of the older SDD (Silca Diagnostic Device) machine.  The TKO incorporates all of the features of the earlier machine into a single easy-to-use device.  The TKO uses a single cable for all vehicles that are programmed through the OBD-II port, an internal CAN router, a faster processor, and much more memory than the earlier SDD machine. 

One interesting feature of the TKO machine is that all of the software that has been introduced for it is backwards-compatible with the older SDD machine.  This means that users of the older machine can still purchase new software for their machines and stay up to date without being forced to buy a new machine.  As far as I know, the TKO is the only device on the market that did not make its predecessor machine instantly obsolete when it was introduced. 

The TKO also has a unique “Help Key” which gives the user additional information such as the location of the OBD-II port on the selected vehicle.

The TKO can be purchased in two ways. The “TKO Complete” is equipped with all of the software that is currently available for the machine, and the “TKO Select” is equipped with only the most popular software for Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan.  Additional software packages can be added to the TKO Select as needed.

Single Platform / Specialty Tools

In addition to the multi-platform machines, several specialty aftermarket machines can greatly simplify the life of an automotive locksmith.  Here are a few of the most popular devices, listed alphabetically by manufacturer.

DMAX (Chrysler SKIM Tool) – The DMAX works in conjunction with a laptop computer to quickly pull the SKIM code from virtually any Chrysler vehicle and perform programming and diagnostic tasks.  For most Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles, a vehicle specific four-digit SKIM code is required in order to program keys to the vehicle. 

In the past, the SKIM code was available through the dealership or online via the V.I.N.  Recently, that has changed and it has become very difficult or expensive to obtain the SKIM code.

The DMAX connects to the car via the OBD-II port and to your laptop via a USB cable.  When the proper vehicle or system has been selected, the DMAX will pull the SKIM code from the vehicle computer in seconds.  In most cases, the DMAX can also program the key as well.  On some very early systems, (Type-1) it is necessary to open up the SKIM module (Sentry Key Immobilizer Module) and attach the DMAX directly to one of the chips on the circuit board.  The tools, cable, and instructions for this operation are included in the DMAX kit. 

For more information on the DMAX go to:

AE Z Flasher – The Z Flasher from AE Tools & Computers is a”J2534 Programming Device,” which means that it conforms to the industry specifications for a device designed to connect a computer to the OBD-II interface.   In the automotive locksmith world, this is simply called a “Pass-Through Box.”  Once the Z Flasher is connected between the vehicle and your computer, if you have the proper software, you can perform a wide variety of programming and diagnostic tasks, both in the vehicle and on the workbench.  

Generally, The Z Flasher is used in conjunction with National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) ( or a manufacturer supported website to perform programming operations that would be impossible with other aftermarket tools.  The Z Flasher offers a variety of different connection possibilities including USB, Ethernet, an optional wireless capability, and more. 

For more information on the Z flasher go to:

EZ Flasher – the EZ Flasher self-contained device can be used to reprogram Honda, Lexus, and Toyota immobilizer units.  In addition, the EZ Flasher can pull the PIN code from some Isuzu vehicles such as the Axiom and Rodeo. 

In the early days of transponder systems, some manufacturers underestimated the owner’s ability to lose keys.  Early Lexus, Toyota, and Honda modules were designed to be replaced rather than reprogrammed.  The replacement cost was high at the time and as the vehicles have aged, some of the modules are simply no longer available.  The solution is to attach a device to a single chip (EPROM) inside the module and reset its value back to the original factory settings.  This essentially fools the module into believing that it is brand new and it can then be programmed for new keys.  There are other flashing tools on the market, but most of them require a connection to a computer. 

The EZ Flasher is a completely self-contained unit powered by the cigarette lighter socket in the car or by a jump-box.  All updates are done by way of purchased SD data cards that are inserted into the device. 

For more information on the EZ Flasher go to: