You Never Can Have Too Many Tools

Sept. 2, 2020
In automotive locksmithing, the number of tools that you might have to buy will depend on the work you do.

I get a lot of emails and the occasional phone call from people who are getting into automotive locksmithing or decided to go deeper into it. One of the biggest problems these people have is trying to decide which transponder programming device to start with. I always ask what vehicles they see themselves programming the most, and I get a lot of different answers. I try to give them the best advice that I can, but most of them get a bad case of “sticker shock” when I start talking about not relying on a single programmer.

In seminars, I point out that no soldier would go to battle armed with just one weapon. Whether it was a rifle, pistol, knife or rocket launcher, any soldier who was serious about surviving would carry as many weapons and as much ammunition as they possibly could. It’s the same for automotive locksmiths. When we go to a vehicle, whether it’s for an individual, dealer or auction, we’re expected to handle it. No one wants excuses or to wait an extra day. The worst thing for your reputation is for you to show up and simply walk away from a job because you don’t have what it takes to do the job.

The bottom line: If you’re going to call yourself an automotive locksmith, you better be able to do the work. And no one transponder tool, particularly not a cheap bootleg knockoff, can do everything. As a general rule, the more you spend on a tool, the more it will do, but no tool does it all.

You might wonder how many programming tools I carry in my truck. The answer depends on the job. I work out of a Ford Transit Connect, which isn’t large enough to carry everything. Normally, I carry seven or eight different programmers. In addition, I have five more such tools that live at my shop. Those tools I take with me when I know or suspect that I might want them.

In My Truck

Following is a list of what tools I carry on a day-to-day basis. To prevent charges of favoritism, I’ll list the tools alphabetically. I consider all of these to be essential.

AutoProPAD from XTools: The AutoProPAD keeps on surprising me. I keep finding new capabilities for the machine that I didn’t appreciate when I bought it. I purchased this tool because I had a late-model Ford Fusion for one of my regular customers that didn’t have a keypad on the door. This car was a repo and had an active alarm, so I couldn’t program a new key until I was able to turn off the alarm. In the past, I had been able to get the code for the keypad off a sticker on the back of the “smart interface” to turn off the alarm. That job was no fun, but it was doable. Because this car didn’t have a keypad, I had to do something else. The AutoProPAD has a routine for turning off the alarm that worked flawlessly. I’ve used that feature several times since, and it’s a lot easier than crawling under the dash to get the code off the “smart interface.”

Another feature of the AutoProPAD is the capability to “flash” a variety of modules, which has made older Lexus and Toyota vehicles a lot easier for me. But the feature I love the most about this tool is the capability to unlock many Mercedes trunks through the onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. The first time I used this feature, I was embarrassed by how quickly it worked. Because it was my first time to use that feature, I did a lot of prep work before I left the shop. I watched videos, read the instructions and even had the machine in the correct menu before I arrived on the scene. Literally, all I had to do when I got there was plug in the machine and push the button. When that trunk popped open, I almost couldn’t believe it. Neither could the customer! His keys had been locked in the trunk for three days, and he had been planning to have the car towed to the dealer.

More info:

DMAX from A&E Tools and Computers: Sadly, this tool apparently no longer is in production or being updated, but A&E still supports it. I bought this tool a few years ago on the recommendation of a friend, who told me, “If you’re going to work on Chrysler vehicles, you HAVE to have this tool.” At the time, he was correct. After Fiat took over Chrysler and cut off access to Chrysler SKIM codes, this tool became a necessity. It saved my day more times than I can count. Because so many tools now can pull the PIN on Chrysler vehicles, I don’t use it as much as I once did. But the capability to rewrite the VIN or the SKIM code, as well as its diagnostic capabilities will keep it in my truck for a long time to come.

The biggest problem that I have with the DMAX is that Windows 10 keeps deleting the USB drivers. I now have a folder on my desktop that has the driver software, so I can reload it whenever Windows 10 decides I don’t have to have the software anymore.

More info:

IKEY820 from Autek: The IKEY820 is one of the least expensive programmers that I carry, but it also is one of the more often used programmers. I have programmed many vehicles through this tool, including Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Nissan and Toyota. The advantage of this tool is that it usually is quick and easy. The operation is straightforward; I don’t have to purchase tokens; and it covers a lot of different vehicles. The disadvantage is that it often doesn’t handle older vehicles well, and on many newer vehicles, it can add keys but can’t handle an all-keys-lost situation. In addition, I found that although it can program a lot of remotes, the IKEY820 doesn’t do it as quickly or as easily as some of my other tools. Since I bought my tool, two updates have been introduced, and I added one of those updates but not the other — yet.

More info:

MVP Pro from Advanced Diagnostics: Even though the MVP Pro (and the T-Code Pro) no longer are in production, they’re far from obsolete. I didn’t trade in my MVP Pro for a Smart Pro primarily because of the MVP Pro’s capability to deal with remotes. I have yet to find a better tool for programming remotes, and programming remotes does NOT require tokens. Although many other tools that I carry can program some remotes, the MVP Pro and its cousin, the T-Code Pro, do a great job. I still use it occasionally for programming transponders as well. That happens when I have a vehicle that won’t program with another tool.

More info:

Smart Pro from Advanced Diagnostics / Kaba Ilco: The Smart Pro was designed to be a replacement for the MVP Pro and the T-Code Pro. Newer vehicles required faster processors and more memory for the storage of larger programs. Unfortunately, the Smart Pro got off to a rough start when some of its cutting-edge features didn’t work so well in the beginning. A particular problem was the early Wi-Fi software, but those problems have been solved, and the machine has become extremely reliable.

The price and the use of tokens has been the biggest reason why the Smart Pro has not been adopted by some locksmiths. Recently, the pricing structure was revamped into a four-tiered system that makes the Smart Pro affordable for just about any automotive locksmith. One of the least understood features is that the Smart Pro is a “hybrid machine” in that it can be used with tokens, like the MVP Pro, or with user-owned software, like the TKO Pro. This means that you can purchase software that you use a lot and not worry about tokens, while you have software available for use on the occasional oddball application without having to spend anything more than a token. That way, when one of your best customer’s mechanics leaves the prox on the roof of a Maserati Ghibli when he takes it for a test-drive, you don’t have to send the customer elsewhere or spend a bundle to buy software that won’t pay for itself.

The Smart Pro is the heaviest programmer that I have, with the largest case. I wouldn’t have made room for it in my truck if I didn’t have to have it. The size and weight of the Smart Pro took a little getting used to, but I think of it as insurance against the future. The Smart Pro has lots of “headroom” in that it has much more memory than it uses, so it can accommodate future software. It also has a fast processor and an operating system that’s designed for updates. It also is the best option that I found for dealing with vehicles made by Fiat Chrysler America (FCA).

FCA seems to be dedicated to making every effort possible to force owners to return to the dealer for service. This includes cutting off access to PINs, adding proprietary interface modules and hiding them in various places in the vehicle. In short, just as the DMAX once was essential for Chrysler vehicles, I believe that the Smart Pro now is essential for working on Chrysler vehicles.

More info:

TrueCode from KeyProgrammers: I purchased the TrueCode back when Nissan BCM codes gave everyone problems. As programming tools go, it’s an inexpensive tool, and it not only helped me with Nissan vehicles, but it also was a huge help with Mazda and some Ford vehicles. It isn’t unusual to run into an older Ford or Lincoln vehicle that doesn’t have power on the OBD cable. This typically is because of a blown fuse or some other problem with the vehicle.  Because all the older programmers were powered by the vehicle, the tool simply wouldn’t light up on some Fords. The solution was to find and fix the problem with the vehicle or use an additional cable to power your tool. The TrueCode was the first self-powered programing tool that I was aware of that could program Ford and Lincoln vehicles. Now, of course, there are others, such as the Smart Pro and the AutoProPAD, so I don’t use the TrueCode as much as I did, but it still comes in handy on a regular basis.

More info:

VVDI Key Tool Max from XHorse: The VVDI Key Tool Max doesn’t fit easily into a particular category, because it does so many different things. Some of us wouldn’t consider it to be a “programmer,” but by adding the optional OBD Tool, it definitely can be used to program some vehicles. I carry the Key Tool Max in my truck primarily for diagnostics, dealing with remotes and programming XHorse Universal Smart Keys.

Because I live in a beach town, I often have to deal with stranded tourists who took the prox fob for their vehicle for a swim. This stuff normally happens on weekends or late in the evening when dealerships are closed. In the past, if I didn’t have the correct fob in stock, I simply couldn’t help those people. Now, with the Key Tool Max and Universal Smart Keys, I can get those people back on the road the same day. The Universal Smart Keys have only limited applications, but I’ve used them on a variety of different vehicles. They aren’t, and probably never will be, my first choice to replace a lost or damaged prox fob, but I used them to help stranded families return home. In addition to using the tool for prox fobs, I also use it regularly to identify chips, check transceiver rings and clone keys.

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In the Field

Below are just a couple of examples of how having multiple programming tools helped me recently.

2000 Volkswagen Beetle: The early New Beetles always have been a crapshoot. Although the Jetta and Passat vehicles were pretty predictable, New Beetles were anything but. Sometimes they would program without a hitch. Other times, a seemingly identical Beetle would fight you tooth and nail. I recently had one of the latter types.

I had a working mechanical key in about 10–15 minutes. I used a Lishi HU66 2-in-1 tool to pick and decode the door lock and cut the key. The next job was to pull the PIN, so I could program the key. The first tool that I tried, the AutoProPAD, pulled a PIN, but it was a six-digit PIN, and a four-digit PIN was required. (I have no idea what the six-digit PIN was for.)  Next, I tried the MVP Pro without success. The Smart Pro finally pulled the necessary PIN. I thought I was through, but the Smart Pro wouldn’t program the key. (And, yes, I cleared error codes repeatedly.) I went back to the MVP Pro and finally got the key programmed, or so I thought.

The car battery was low when I got there, so I used my jump-box during the programming. When the car started, I let it run to recharge the battery while I put away my tools and took care of getting paid. Before I left, I shut off the car and restarted it with no problem. A couple of hours later, I got a call from the customer who said the key quit working. When I got back to the car, I checked to see how many keys were in memory. The result was zero when I checked with one machine and three when I checked with another machine!

I programmed the key back in and the car started repeatedly, but I was worried, because the number of keys in memory hadn’t changed. I told the customer to call if the key quit again and went home. That evening, a friend returned my call seeking advice and told me that an error code probably was in the instrument cluster and that I would have to use a machine that I didn’t have to clear it. I asked him whether the Super VAG would do the job, and he said that it should. Sure enough, early the next morning, the customer called again. I grabbed my Super VAG, went to the car and had the problem fixed in about 15 minutes. Why didn’t I use the Super VAG in the first place?  Reason No. 1: I didn’t have it with me on the first trip. Reason No. 2: I use it so rarely, I didn’t even think about it until later.

2016 Mazda6 Prox: One of my regular customers buys cars that require work at the auction. He does what has to be done and ressells the car at the auction. I got a call from him about a 2016 Mazda6 that had a prox with a broken case. He had only half of the case for the prox and the circuit board, but the car would start and run if you pushed the button with the circuit board.

One of the problems with the Mazda prox system is that, like a Ford, the vehicle won’t run unless it has at least two prox fobs in memory. But unlike a Ford, normal programming is “all at once” programming that automatically deletes all fobs in memory. So, in an all-keys-lost situation, you normally have to program in two prox fobs, which can lead to “sticker shock” for many customers. Some machines now have routines to add a key or fob, but those routines aren’t always reliable.

In this case, the customer didn’t want two fobs, and because the fob for this car was in such bad shape, I wasn’t sure whether I could program it back in. I tried to add the new fob with the AutoProPAD. That didn’t work, so I reluctantly went to the all-keys-lost procedure. I successfully erased all fobs from memory, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get it to take the new fob or the original fob. Even though the car started easily when I got there, I put a jump-box on it just in case.

When I raised the hood, I was amazed to see a shiny, tricked-out engine with lots of “go-fast” modifications. Now I began to suspect that my real problem was that the previous owner had been a boy-racer who tweaked the computer as well as the engine. I went home and went back the next day armed with a little research and a plan. I eventually got both prox fobs loaded in, but I had to use the MVP Pro to clear errors and the TrueCode to program the fobs.

Steve Young has been a locksmith since 1973 and has trained and taught locksmiths since 1988. He is a frequent contributor to Locksmith Ledger.