Keyless Remotes: The Devil Really Is In The Details

May 1, 2018
Dealing in remotes can be very profitable, but you have to watch out for the small details. The real trick is not to make the same mistake twice!

As an automotive locksmith, keyless remotes have become a large part of my business. Keyless remotes have also become a large “Revenue Stream” for automotive dealerships as well. And, since the auto manufacturers make the rules in this game, they try their best to make sure that any customers that are in search of new remotes find their way back to the dealership. Their main tactic has been to confuse the issue by setting up so many different options on remotes that only the dealership can afford to stock all of the options.

This has proven to be a double-edged sword. By making the subject so complex, dealers that have tried to maintain an adequate stock soon accumulate huge piles of unsold or obsolete remotes. As a result, more and more dealerships have elected to make all but the most common keyless remotes a “special order” item, and only order the remotes as needed. As with most complex systems, the “law of unintended consequences” has brought about some surprising results. By artificially pushing up the price and hassle of purchasing remotes from dealerships, they have opened up new markets to those who buy used or unsold remotes and resell them. They have also given entrepreneurs an incentive to develop “universal” remotes that can replace dozens, if not hundreds of different OEM remotes.

Perhaps the worst unintended consequence is the huge number of knock-off remotes sold online from China, and other countries that don’t respect patent and copyright laws. The internet is literally flooded with sites claiming to sell quality remotes at ridiculously low prices. I spend way too much of my time on the phone explaining the facts of life to people who want me to program some cheap remote that they bought online. It didn’t take long to discover that using phrases like “What kind of discount do you get if you take your own eggs to Waffle House?” are counterproductive.

I have learned to offer these people my service as a “flat rate for hooking up the diagnostic computer,” and stress that since they are providing the materials, I cannot be responsible if the remote does not function.   Naturally, I set my “flat rate” at about 50 percent more than what I would make for selling them a remote. I never hear back from many of these people, but about half of them have me attempt to program their remote. Of those, about half either have the wrong remote, or have a remote that won’t program. Many of those folks wind up buying a remote from me that I can stand behind. I also have a fair number of people come back to me for a reliable remote after the knock-off that they bought fails, or falls apart.

Coping with Complexity

They say that if you “can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” Well, if you want to make keyless remotes a part of your business, you’ll just have to learn to deal with the overwhelming complexity that comes with the territory. The best way to make sure that you are selling your customer the correct remote is to begin by getting the OEM part number for their remote. This is not as easy as it sounds. Even if the customer has a remote that has the part number printed on, or molded into the case, you simply cannot trust that information. Many aftermarket remotes have been “refurbished and re-shelled,” which means that that what is inside the shell, may not match what is printed on the shell.

If you go to your vendor’s website and look up the remote by make model and year, you may only get the remotes that the vendor stocks, rather than all the possible remotes for that particular make, model and year. As an example, about a year ago I ordered an Integrated Remote Key (IRK) for a friend’s Honda Passport from a vendor. As it turned out, for that particular vehicle, there were two options for the rear hatch, and only one appeared on the vendor website. (Photo 1) The options were for a remote that opened the entire hatch, or just released the catch on the rear window. The key that I received was for the hatch, and the remote that I needed was the one for the window. Only after I got the OEM part number for her remote was I able to solve the problem. By cross-referencing the OEM part number, which I got with the VIN from the dealer, the same vendor was able to supply me with the correct IRK. The real trick was getting the OEM part number. Since that incident, I have discovered that this is a common problem on Honda SUVs, even those that use a prox fob. It is also a problem with many Lexus and Toyota SUVs that use a prox fob.

Most dealership parts departments won’t give you the part number over the phone. I have occasionally been able to trick them by pretending to be the vehicle owner. The conversation normally goes something like this: “I just bought a [vehicle make and model] for my [non-existent] daughter and the car did not come with a remote. Can you tell me if there is a remote available for it, and if so how much?” At this point they ask for the VIN and I supply that information. If the vehicle is equipped for a remote (something that I may have already known), they will then give me the price, and tell me about the cost to program it. At that point, I tell them: “My daughter is off at school, but she’ll be back in a couple of weeks. So we don’t have to go through this again, can you give me the part number so I can just order it when she comes back home?” Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, I may try a different dealer.

I have also cultivated a few dealerships that I do work for to get occasional favors. (Donuts and pre-paid pizza cards can work wonders!) For those dealerships, all I have to do is call the parts department and ask the question. This comes in very handy since I work with several used car dealers that buy and sell at the local auction. Recently, I had a Dodge Journey with no prox fob at one of my dealers, and when I checked, I saw that remote start was an option. The lot that had the car had no idea if it was equipped for remote start or not. After getting the VIN, and a quick call to a dealer that I work with, I was soon on my way to the job with the correct fob and the key code. On several auto parts websites, I may be able to get the OEM part number from the VIN, but the information from those sites is either hard to get or unreliable. I prefer to go through my local dealer network whenever possible.

The Tsunami of 2011

In addition to the devastation and loss of life, the tsunami that struck Japan in March of 2011 has also caused problems for both Honda/Acura and Toyota/Lexus remotes. Although some 2011 models were affected, most of the problems are with models made in the 2012 model year. In the case of Honda, some models were just not made or exported during that time, but the problems are more of an issue with Toyota/Lexus vehicles equipped with a prox system that were manufactured late in the 2011 model year and any prox vehicle in the 2012 model year. As I understand it, one of the vendors that supplied circuit boards for the Toyota/Lexus prox fobs was destroyed by the tsunami. Replacement circuit boards were made by another manufacturer, (Photo 2) but they are not compatible or interchangeable with the original circuit boards, even though the programming is the same and the FCC ID Numbers are the same.

There are two ways to know if you have the correct fob. The first is to open the case and check the circuit board itself. (Photos 3 and 4) The second way is to obtain the OEM part number for that particular vehicle from the VIN, and then cross reference it with your vendor’s part number. Once again, the information on the outside of the case, if any, may not be of any help.

Toyota / Lexus Issues

And while we’re on the subject of Lexus / Toyota prox fobs, the same issue that I mentioned earlier about the rear hatch versus glass release on SUVs is often a problem. Photo 5 shows two virtually identical Lexus fobs except that one opens the powered rear hatch and the other opens just the rear glass. If you look carefully at the buttons, you’ll see the slight difference. If you are programming or ordering an additional fob for a customer, look closely to make sure that you are ordering or programming the correct fob.

A question that I get fairly often involves when to perform an “Immobilizer Reset” on Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The “Add a Key” procedure on ANY Toyota or Lexus vehicle that is programmed through the OBD port requires that you insert a “Registered” key into the ignition before you insert the new key. A “Registered” key is a key that will start and run the vehicle, and is not a valet key. If you are in an “all keys lost” situation, you obviously won’t have a registered key, so you cannot use the “Add a Key” procedure. If you do not have a working key for the vehicle, or if the only key you have is a valet key, you MUST perform an “Immobilizer Reset” in order to program a key or a prox fob.

The “Valet Keys” used in the Toyota / Lexus system are electronic valet keys, rather than mechanical valet keys. A Toyota or Lexus valet key may be able to open the trunk and glove compartment (if they are equipped with a lock) but cannot be used to program additional keys. The OEM valet keys have a grey head, but it is a very dark charcoal-grey, that may appear black if it has a lot of wear on it. In addition, aftermarket keys with a black rubber head can be programmed as a valet key. For those reasons, it is very important that you know how to tell the difference between a master key and a valet key, regardless of the appearance of the key. Fortunately, that job is easy once you know how. If you watch the blinking “Security Light” as you insert the owner’s key, you can tell immediately if it is a valet or a master key. When a master key is inserted, the security light will go out immediately. It is not necessary to turn the key – just insert it into the ignition lock. If a valet key is inserted, the security light will blink one more time after the key has been inserted into the lock.

There are no valet prox fobs, but if you are programming a prox fob in an “all keys lost” situation, you will have to perform an immobilizer reset just as you would if the vehicle were key operated. In addition, if you are adding an additional prox fob, you may still have to perform an immobilizer reset.  When you are programming a prox fob, both the vehicle and the fob are programmed to recognize each other. Identification information is “burned” into the fob during the programming process. If you are using a used or refurbished fob, the identification data in the fob will not match the vehicle and the fob will not be accepted by the vehicle. The Lexus / Toyota fobs do not “lock” the way Chrysler and some Nissan fobs lock, so there is a “work-around” for using a used or refurbished Toyota or Lexus fob; all you have to do is perform an immobilizer reset and then program in your new fob and the customer’s original fob as well. Performing an immobilizer reset will not be necessary if you are using a brand new fob, or a fob that has been properly “Re-Virginized.”

Locking Remotes and Fobs

The communication between almost all modern remotes and the vehicle is a two-way communication. In many systems, the process of programming the remote burns information into the remote that essentially “marries” the remote to the vehicle for life. For that reason, many remotes cannot be re-used on a different vehicle unless the vehicle information is removed or erased. When a used remote can’t be programmed to a new vehicle, that remote is said to be “Locked.” Some remotes can be easily unlocked in the field with simple equipment, such as a cloner, but the process normally requires special information or skills that many locksmiths simply don’t have or don’t want to learn. Most vendors who deal in refurbished remotes are equipped to unlock those remotes. That is not true of many of the cutthroat operators on the internet. As a result, many locked remotes are sold to unsuspecting people and we get stuck with having to educate the victims.

One of the most common locking fobs is the Nissan Prox fob (Photo 6). Nissan now offers more entry level vehicles equipped with push-button starting than any other manufacturer. Some of the prox fobs lock and some do not. Basically, if the FCC ID Number starts with CWTW or KR55, the prox does not lock. If the FCC ID Number starts with KR5S, then it locks. Unfortunately, that “S” can often look like a “5,” so read the number carefully – preferably with a magnifier, or check the listed FCC ID in your vendor literature.