Gone But Not Forgotten

Nov. 4, 2019
Older vehicle servicing challenges: VATS, the MRD System and the NGS Tool

When Gale Johnson gave me the title for this article, I thought at first that it was a joke about me!  But, when he explained what he wanted, I understood completely.  In fact, I had done battle with a 1992 Camaro just a couple of days earlier, so I had some fresh experience with a security system that was gone, but still causing problems for automotive locksmiths.  At this point in my life, I find myself in the unenviable position of getting all the automotive jobs in town that no one else wants.  I’m not sure if it’s because I’m the oldest automotive locksmith around or if it’s because I have a reputation for never walking away from a job.  Regardless, it makes for an interesting life, in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse, which loosely translated means “May you live in interesting times!”

VATS - Still alive, but not enjoying it

Let’s start with the 1992 Camaro that had ruined a perfectly good Saturday for me the weekend before Gale called me.  (Photo 1)  When I get a call for a vehicle of this type, they generally fall into one of two types: either it’s a pristine, well cared for collector’s car, or it’s a piece of junk.  This one was definitely a piece of junk, and the fact that it had been turned into a rolling boom-box by someone who did not know the difference between electrical tape and masking tape didn’t make the job any better.  

The underside of the dash was a mass of odd wires and splices that I tried my best to ignore.  I couldn’t ignore the heavy wires that were crudely attached to the battery terminals, so I disconnected them and told the owner that I would not be re-attaching them, and that was the only way that I would do the job.

This vehicle was equipped from the factory with the VATS (Vehicle Anti-Theft System) system also known as PassKey II. (Photo 2)  If you are not familiar with the VATS system, it was first introduced in 1986 on the Chevrolet Corvette, and at one time it was standard equipment on all Cadillac vehicles as well as most of GM’s luxury and/or performance vehicles.  The effectiveness of VATS was nothing short of miraculous in its day.  Before VATS was implemented, new Corvette theft rates were so high that insurance companies were threatening not to insure them.  Within two years, Corvettes became one of the least stolen vehicles in production! 

The secret of its success was profoundly simple; it didn’t try to prevent car thefts so much as slow down the thief.  Anyone with a basic knowledge of the system could make a working key for a VATS vehicle in an hour or slightly less, but that was about 55 minutes longer than most car thieves were willing to sit in a car that they couldn’t start, waiting to be caught.

There were originally 15 different VATS key blanks and every time you tried the wrong key, a delay of about three minutes began, during which even the correct key would not start the vehicle.  (I have never been sure whether the fact that GM put out information that the delay period was four minutes was just an error, or a clever trick to screw up the car thieves.  The actual delay time is “Two Minutes Plus,” and I can prove that if you don’t believe me.)  Of course, thieves also had to defeat the mechanical locks, but in 1986 they had that down to a science and could crank a non-VATS vehicle within seconds of gaining entry to the vehicle.  The concept of the electronic delay, now referred to as “Immobilization,” proved so successful, that it is still the heart of modern anti-theft systems, which are known as “Immobilizers.”

So, if VATS was so successful, why was it discontinued, and deemed obsolete, after only 17 years?  The simple answer is that the technology had become better and cheaper, plus the VATS system had several failure-prone components.  The keys themselves could fail in normal usage if they were handled too roughly, got stepped on, oily, or got too hot.  The wire that ran between the ignition lock and the computer would eventually break, simply because it had to flex every time the key was turned in the ignition.  And, the contact points inside the ignition lock would wear out and were susceptible to corrosion.  Current vehicle anti-theft systems do not have these failure points and most modern keys are harder to damage or disable than the VATS keys were.  The integrated remote head keys from Lexus, Toyota, and Honda are definitely an exception to that.

With all of that I mind, what sane automotive locksmith would go out on a Saturday, in record breaking heat, to do battle with a VATS vehicle (piece of junk) that was 27 years old?  Apparently, the answer to that question is me.  To make matters worse, I discovered that one of our local code-smiths had already walked away from the job.  The real kicker was when the owner told me that the code-smith had actually managed to get a key code for the vehicle that turned the ignition lock!  When the car wouldn’t start, the code-smith didn’t have a clue what the problem was and walked away. 

I asked the customer if they had gotten the key code from the code-smith, but sadly they hadn’t.  I then asked the customer to see if the code-smith would sell her the key code, and he agreed.  At that point, I was ready to tackle the job for a price that the customer could afford.

I knew that if I had a key that would turn the ignition, I would not have to deal with the 27-year-old airbag or disassemble the steering column.   In my mind, that left two possible problems: The VATS value that the code-smith got was wrong, or the wire between the ignition and the computer had broken, or possibly both.  (I’m still amazed that he was able to get a working code for a vehicle that old!)  All I had to do was to interrogate the vehicle and possibly install a bypass resistor if the wire was broken.  (“Interrogation” is the process of trying each value one at a time, while waiting three minutes or more between starting attempts, until the correct value is determined.)  (Photo 3)

When I arrived, the customer had the key code plus the VATS value that didn’t work!  Once I was there, I cut a test key on an Ilco P1098AV and made sure that it turned the ignition.  I then went under the dash (yuck) and plugged my interrogator into the VATS wire.  I didn’t want to use my ByPass adaptor to input the value through the ignition lock just in case the contacts in the ignition were damaged or the wire was broken.  I then tried the value that the code-smith had gotten, which was Number 8.  That didn’t work, and I knew that the system was working by watching the security light, so I waited three minutes before I tried another value.  (If you know how to read the security light, you can tell a lot about the VATS system in the car, but that is too long a discussion to have here.  Contact me if you want more information.)

While I was waiting, I thought about what value to try next.  I know that originally there were no vehicle specific records of the VATS values kept by GM.  All the VATS values were later reconstructed from assembly records when GM got into the roadside assistance business.  In addition, when I’ve hit wrong code numbers in the past, it has usually turned out to be a human error such as transposed digits or similar looking or sounding letters or numbers.  With that in mind, I thought “what numbers might look like an 8”?  The answer of course is 3 and 5.  The next value that I tried was three, but it did not work either.  After that, I tried five and that big V8 roared to life!  If it hadn’t worked, I was prepared to do a complete interrogation, but because I took a couple of minutes to think the situation through, I saved myself a lot of time.  And trust me, I quoted a price that more than covered my time!

MRD – the zombie anti-theft system

The MRD system, also known as PassLock I and PassLock II, has been dead for years, but it just keeps on going, attempting to eat the brains of automotive locksmiths.  I have recently had to admit that telling the owners of these vehicles to just let them die  is doing them a service.  In the past, I have gone to heroic lengths to make this system work for a little longer or bypass it completely.  The problem with actually fixing an MRD vehicle is that it will inevitably fail again, and the customer will blame you.

MRD was introduced in 1996 as a less costly alternative to a transponder system.  (Photo 4) The system only controls the fuel supply.  (If the starter does not engage, the problem is NOT with the MRD system!)  PassLock I only controls the fuel pump, but PassLock II controls the fuel pump as well as the fuel injectors. 

The MRD system has not aged well at all.  In the beginning, the system seemed like a great idea, but as it aged serious problems began to appear.

MRD stands for “Magnetic Rotation Device,” and the heart of the system is a “Hall-Effect” sensor mounted on the side of the lock cylinder. (Photo 5) When the lock is turned, a small magnet, embedded in the lock plug, rotates beneath the hall-effect sensor, triggering the sensor.  Hall-effect sensors are quite common on modern vehicles and are normally very reliable.  They are essentially very precise motion detectors that detect movement by way the magnetic field of a magnet located in whatever the sensor is monitoring.  Hall-effect sensors are what replaced the “Points” inside modern distributors.  (If you are not old enough to have ever filed or gapped a set of “points,” you will just have to Google the term.)

Once the hall-effect sensor in the MRD system is triggered by the rotation of the lock plug, it sends a signal to the vehicle computer that then activates the fuel system.  If someone tries to start the vehicle by any method other than turning the ignition lock, the fuel system will not be activated.  This prevents “Hot-Wire” attacks, and the lock plug is made in such a way that it will damage or destroy the hall-effect sensor if the lock is forced to turn, or the plug is pulled out with a dent-puller. But the system offered no “key-control” because the key is just a mechanical key that could be easily duplicated.

The big advantage of the MRD system from GM’s point of view was that it satisfied the European immobilizer requirements at a much lower cost than transponder systems.  Unfortunately for GM, the cost of repairing the failures of the system while still under warranty far exceeded the cost savings of the original system.  This led to GM dropping the system like a hot rock after the 2006 model year.

I could write a book about all the things that can and do go wrong with the MRD system, but I will settle for a short list of the main problems:

  • Corrosion of the wiring connectors causing voltage changes
  • Dirt, grease, or crud between the magnet and the hall-effect sensor
  • Damaged wiring between the hall effect sensor and the MRD module
  • Failure of the MRD module (located between the hall-effect sensor and the computer)
  • emory failure (system must be re-programmed)
  • Cracked or broken magnet
  • Damaged hall-effect sensor

With all of these (and more) possible points of failure, simply diagnosing the problem is a real chore.  Shortly before the system was phased out, GM adopted a policy of replacing every component in the system, including parts of the wiring harness, whenever an MRD system failed under warranty.  They decided that this would be less expensive in the long run than wasting time trying to diagnose the problem.

A friend of mine spent a lot of time working out exactly how to bypass the MRD system completely by installing specific resistors in the wiring.  (The process of bypassing the MRD system is not easy or cheap.)  I recently called him about an MRD vehicle that I was trying to fix, and he told me that he will no longer work on these vehicles.  When I told him that I had pretty much come to the same conclusion, but this particular vehicle belonged to a “poor soul” who really needed help, he replied “They always do.”  After thinking about that for a while, I managed to get the car running but told the owner to “get rid of it as soon as possible.”  Since then, I simply turn down any jobs that involve MRD problems.

Gone but not forgotten tools

As automotive locksmithing continues to evolve, the tools that were once “must have” are now often collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.  I recently got a call from a locksmith who was trying to find a replacement manual for his NGS tool.  At one time, the NGS tool was the official tool used by Ford for servicing Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury vehicles.  As a “Factory Tool” it performed many more functions besides programming transponder keys but was one of the first transponder tools that many locksmiths purchased.  At a cost of over $2000 when they were new, it was not an expense taken lightly.  The cost of this tool and the tools that soon followed, are largely responsible for many so-called “Full-Service” locksmiths deciding to get out of automotive work.  I recently bought an NGS tool at a flea market for $5 and was shocked to discover that it still worked!  (Photo 6)

For the locksmith who was searching for a new manual for his elderly NGS tool, I told him that pdf versions of the manual were on the web, but he told me that he had been unable to find one.  I searched myself and discovered that he was correct.  At one time you could download the manual from numerous sources, but I was unable to find a single one now.  I eventually emailed a copy of the one I have to the guy, but this experience has made me decide to include an archive of old manuals in pdf format on my website when it goes live, hopefully before the end of the year.

Another tool that is gone but not forgotten is the SDD tool (Photo 7) and its replacement, the TKO tool.  At one time, these were two of the leading multi-vehicle programmers on the market.  Unfortunately, Chinese knockoffs eventually killed these excellent tools.  Silca, the manufacturer of both tools simply could not sell enough of them to underwrite the expense of research and development of updates, because so many people were buying the counterfeit tools, instead of the real thing.  (One of my local code-smiths has a truck full of knockoff tools and can’t understand why I am no longer willing to help him out when he gets in over his head!) I recently bought a TKO knockoff (SBB) from Amazon for $39, in hopes that I could cannibalize it to replace a damaged cable that is no longer available for my genuine tool.  Sadly, the cable wouldn’t work, and I wound up giving the tool to another locksmith.  I did program several vehicles with the tool, just to see if it would work, but discovered that probably 50% of the software simply didn’t work.

You may wonder why I would go to so much trouble to keep an “obsolete” tool working.  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I seem to work on a lot of “obsolete” vehicles.  I have discovered that for some older vehicles, my elderly SDD is still the best option, especially for older Nissan vehicles.  The infamous “Easter Egg” feature (Photo 8) added by Randy Mize to the Nissan menu has saved my butt many times on Nissan vehicles where the computer was “hung up” and would not come out of the programming mode.  I have even used this feature on prox vehicles!  (Sadly, I recently tried it on a Nissan Rogue without success.  I was eventually able to get the vehicle running again.  But I truly think that prayer was what really solved that problem!)

This problem of “obsolete” systems is not going to go away.  If anything, it’s going to get worse.  Modern cars are totally dependent on their computer systems, which is a double-edged sword at best.  They are great when they work, but don’t expect them to work forever.  And more importantly, don’t expect the components to always be available.

 A friend of mine buys, refurbishes, and sells the early video display units used by GM that used actual CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) screens.  These things are bigger than most large shoe boxes and were only used for a few years in the late 80s and early 90s.  After refurbishing one of these units, my friend can resell it for a thousand dollars or more because replacement units are simply not available.  I suspect that barring accidents, my “Antique” 1959 Austin Healey Sprite (Photo 9) will still be running long after most of the new vehicles on the market today have been recycled.