Programming Overview for Automotive Locksmiths

Oct. 19, 2021
Determining your ‘type’ is as important as determining your programming device.

I’ve been thinking about what “programming” means to the average locksmith. My first thought was that there really is no such thing as an “average locksmith,” because we’re such a diverse group. We each have our skillsets, preferences and demands. We serve different markets scattered all over this county. The automotive locksmiths in big cities and small towns have different demands, as do locksmiths in resort towns, such as myself, who see the ebb and flow of the “tourist season.” In the end, I decided that there are basically four types of programming demands in our industry and, thus, automotive locksmiths:

Type One

A lot of locksmiths simply don’t have much call for advanced programming tools or techniques. Most of the time for those locksmiths is spent on residential or commercial locksmithing, and they work on cars only occasionally. Still, they must deal with the occasional lockout and generating new keys on occasion. Solving the customer’s problem adds to income and builds a customer base. After all, happy customers are the lifeline of any business. But these locksmiths can’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars on tools and equipment for the small number of automotive jobs. I guess you could call this group “entry level,” but many in this group have no desire to go any further in automotive locksmithing. All they’re interested in is solving the customer’s problem, so they can get back to their “real work.”

Type Two

Most of the locksmiths who fall into this type operate in larger metropolitan areas. They have a walk-in storefront and conduct a majority of their business either in the shop or in the parking lot. Typically, these shops cater to the “extra key” market and might cut hundreds of keys over the course of a day. Automotive transponder programming to these people is a nuisance, and they much rather would copy a handful of residential keys for a realtor than deal with programming an extra key to a Ford or some other vehicle that has a 10–12-minute delay built into the process of adding a duplicate key. These locksmiths might refer all-keys-lost jobs to Type Three locksmiths.

Type Three

I consider myself to be a Type Three locksmith most of the time, but I dabble in Type Four work out of necessity. I specialize in automotive work. I do as much dealership work as I can, but I also have to balance that with individuals who lost their keys or are dealing with a lock failure. As a one-man operation, I don’t have a storefront, but lots of Type Three locksmiths have more than one employee and maintain a storefront. I have a shop, but I don’t advertise my address and meet customers there only by appointment. I handle everything from key duplication to lost-key replacement, including prox keys. I deal with lock failures in the field (thanks, Honda and Volkswagen) and deal with lockouts as time permits. I have to carry everything in my truck that it takes to deal with a wide variety of situations. On some days, I’m rarely at my shop; on others, I’m there most of the day.

Type Four

The guys who mostly do Type Four work deal primarily with computer issues. That might include EEPROM work and module repair and replacement. A lot of the Type Four work I do is reprogramming vehicles after a mechanic or a do-it-yourselfer has swapped or replaced a module that’s a part of the anti-theft system. Fools truly do rush in where angels fear to tread, and I’m constantly explaining to people why you simply can’t swap modules without programming. Type Four automotive locksmiths also generate keys for vehicles that require special programming that many would consider to be “dealer only.”

Tools and Techniques

When Ford introduced the first automotive transponder systems to the U.S. market in 1996, all programming could be done via onboard programming. That meant that automotive locksmiths had to invest only in transponder keys and a little bit of training.

That didn’t last long. In 1998, the PATS-1 system, formerly known simply as PATS, gave way to the PATS-2 system. From that point on, some programming equipment became necessary for almost all key programming. Today, I own 10 different programming tools and plan to buy another soon.

All programming devices require periodic updates to deal with new vehicles and systems. Three different systems have developed for handling these updates:

A-la-carte. These systems allow you to purchase updates as necessary for specific operations. Keeping up with this type of system can be confusing, frustrating and expensive, but for some, it’s the best option.

Annual subscriptions. These systems provide the user with a full year of updates and software “patches” for one annual fee. This type of system seems to be gaining in popularity.

Tokens. These systems require the user to pay in advance for the use of new software as necessary. Token systems can be cost-effective for some, but if you’re a heavy user of the tool, it can become prohibitively expensive. Most tools that use the token system now offer unlimited tokens, which are essentially the same as an annual subscription, but in many cases, you can buy unlimited tokens by the month if you wish.

Each vehicle manufacturer has a programming tool that’s used in-house by authorized technicians and works exclusively at the dealerships. Users of these tools enjoy the benefits of a tool that was designed specifically for the vehicles that they work on. The tools are supported directly by the manufacturers, and the software is designed in collaboration with the engineers who designed the vehicles. The users of these tools also have unlimited access to any passwords, PINs or data that they want. In other words, these machines are essentially the “keys to the kingdom” to vehicles made by a single manufacturer.

In the early days of transponders, dedicated tools were the only choice. But soon, multivehicle tools came out, and they have become the primary choice for locksmiths. Buying and updating a dedicated tool for each manufacturer is cost-prohibitive for most automotive locksmiths. But some Type Three and Type Four locksmiths still buy and maintain dealer programming devices for some brands.

For most of us though, aftermarket multimanufacturer machines are the best choice. But it’s important to understand that none of these is designed or approved by the various manufacturers. Because of copyright and patent laws, the software that drives these machines is developed individually without the help of the manufacturers. That fact alone is primarily the reason why these machines cost what they do.

The upside to this is that clever software designers come out with workarounds and hacks that make our lives easier. One case in point is the various time delays that are built into many systems. The 10-minute delay on many Ford products now is bypassed routinely by many machines. The 16-minute and 22-minute delays for an “immobilizer reset” on many Toyota and Lexus vehicles also now can be bypassed in many cases.

The following list covers most of the popular programmers on the market. Because of space limitations and personal experience, I can’t cover every tool on the market.

Beware: Some tools on the market are essentially illegal knockoffs of other popular tools. Most of the knockoff tools are produced by buying a legal tool and then cloning the software. These should be avoided. As locksmiths, we’re given a lot of trust by our customers, and I refuse to use knockoff tools as a point of honor. I don’t steal from my customers, and I won’t steal from those who support my livelihood.

The following tools are grouped according to the four types of locksmiths discussed above. Please understand that those four groups are totally arbitrary, and I’m well-aware that there’s no such thing as a tool that’s perfect for everyone.

Entry-Level Programmers

IKEY820 from Autek

This is one of the least expensive programmers on the market, but it gives the owner a lot of “bang for the buck.”  I bought mine shortly after it came out, and it paid for itself quickly. The advantage of this tool is that it’s usually quick and easy. The operation is simple; no tokens are involved; and it covers a lot of different vehicles, including Ford, Chrysler, General Motors, Toyota and Nissan. (Note: Even though the machine doesn’t use tokens, a message recently has been popping up about tokens. I simply ignore the message and go on without any problems. I have no idea why the message started to pop up, but it doesn’t affect the operation of the tool.) The weakness of the tool is that it often doesn’t handle older vehicles well, and on many newer vehicles, it can’t handle an all-keys-lost situation. In addition, I’ve found that although the tool programs remotes, it doesn’t do it as quickly or as easily as some of my other tools. Since I bought mine, two updates have been introduced, and I added one but not the other.

For more information, go to:

TrueCode from KeyProgrammers

I purchased my TrueCode when Nissan BCM codes were giving everyone problems. The TrueCode is inexpensive as programming tools go, and it turns your laptop into a programmer. All software is loaded into your laptop and the onboard diagnostics (OBD) cable plugs into your laptop’s USB port. The TrueCode helped me with Mazda and some Ford vehicles as well as Nissan. One note: An older Ford or Lincoln vehicle might not have power on the OBD port. This often is caused by a blown fuse or some other problem, so on some models, the tool won’t light up. One solution is to use an additional cable to power your tool. I don’t use the TrueCode as much as before, but it still comes in handy on a regular basis.

For more information, go to:

Mainstream Programmers

AutoProPad and AutoProPad G2 from XTool

XTool has been around for years, primarily making diagnostic tools for mechanics. The AutoProPad designed for locksmiths was introduced several years ago and is backed by years of experience in other aspects of modern automotive computer systems. The original AutoProPad is available in three versions: Basic, Lite and Full. All three tools use the same basic machine and software. The accessories and optional components that are included with each are the main differences among the versions. My Full Version AutoProPad included accessories for basic EEPROM work, such as reflashing and reading Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura modules, and PIN-code reading equipment for early Chrysler vehicles, VW and others.

The AutoProPad doesn’t use or require tokens, and after a year of free updates, you can purchase additional yearly service plans for a reasonable price. Shortly after I renewed my annual subscription, the new G2 and G2 Turbo versions of the AutoProPad were introduced. My first thought was that I had just spent on a service plan for a tool that might just have become obsolete. But after looking into the situation, I realized that was NOT the case. The G2 versions are basically an improved tablet with a newer version of the Android operating system. They’re faster and have more memory, but G2 and older versions run the same applications and have essentially the same capabilities. If my current tablet fails, I will replace it with a G2 tablet, but my existing tablet is NOT obsolete.

The G2 Turbo version includes an improved system for EEPROM work that has some very cool features that my old system lacks, but because I do little EEPROM work, it isn’t an issue to me. However, if you plan on doing EEPROM work, you should look carefully at the G2 Turbo version.

For more information, contact your distributor or go to:

Smart Pro from Advanced Diagnostics/Kaba Ilco

The Smart Pro replaced the older T-Code Pro and the MVP Pro years ago. A lot of satisfied users of the T-Code Pro and MVP Pro initially resisted the move to a new machine, but because there would be no more updates for their existing tools, their options were limited. Advanced Diagnostics USA gave the Smart Pro all the necessary features that the earlier tools lacked, including built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, a built-in accessory port for future devices and support for pre-existing devices, such as the Smart Aerial, and easier to understand operations and menus.

My biggest disappointment with the Smart Pro initially was a lack of improved VW and Audi software. I had hoped that through the optional Smart Aerial that supported precoding of VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group) keys, the Smart Pro finally would open up the VW and Audi market to me. Unfortunately, the VAG software for the Smart Pro was sadly lacking.

That changed a few months ago with the introduction of VAG software that finally makes the Smart Pro a real competitor in this market. In addition to the VAG software, the Smart Pro with the optional Smart Aerial now makes servicing Fiat vehicles much easier. Adding a key for a Fiat 500, using Ilco aftermarket fobs, is now just as fast and just as easy as adding a key to a Ford!

For more information, contact your dealer or go to:

Advanced Programmers

As I mentioned earlier, I consider myself to be a Type Three automotive locksmith who occasionally does some Type Four work. Below are tools that I own and hope to own soon for tackling the more advanced vehicles that I deal with from time to time.

VVDI Key Tool or Key Tool Max from XHorse

One of these tools is something that every automotive locksmith should own. I purchased the original Key Tool shortly after it was introduced and was amazed at how handy it was. Suddenly, I had a hand-held tool that could read and write transponder keys, detect frequencies of remotes and smart keys, test transceiver rings and unlock Toyota and Lexus smart keys — as well as hundreds of other jobs that I simply couldn’t perform before. Then, along came the Key Tool Max that did all those functions and more at a reasonable price.

I live in a resort area on the Gulf of Mexico, and “tourist season” means lots of lost or waterlogged smart keys and stranded families. In the past, I turned down a lot of smart-key business, because I couldn’t afford to stock the hundreds of different smart keys to handle all possibilities. Universal Smart Keys from XHorse and the Key Tool Max helped me to help dozens of stranded tourists. By using those two items, I can create a working smart key on weekends, holidays and in the dead of night. Although the Universal Smart Keys are anything but universal, they cover a lot of vehicles and are very affordable.

For more information, go to or

IM608 Pro tool from Autel

I don’t own one of these tools, but I plan to buy one in the very near future. Several friends who own one or more all rave about them. The IM608 uses an Android based 10.1-inch touchpad tablet and features 64GB of onboard memory, built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and an onboard rechargeable battery.

As far as the software, it covers most of the common vehicles as well as many that aren’t covered by other machines. This includes OBD support for many BMW, Mercedes, VW and Audi vehicles as well. The IM608 is sold in several configurations that include optional components that allow the user to handle a variety of EEPROM work as well as a “pass-through” device for vehicles that require it.

In short, the IM608 might be the most versatile of all the multivehicle programmers on the market, and I’ll have to say about it at a later date.

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