High-tech keys are a pain

The dream used to be to get a computer to fit into a single room. Today, a more powerful device is actually small enough to fall into the crack between the front seat and the console of your car. I guess that’s progress.

Today’s telephone slides into your pocket and also surfs the Internet and has satellite navigation. Compare that with the old-style crank phone, or how about the entire phone booth.

The up side — and the hope — of all new technology is that it’s more compact. Who designs new stuff that’s bigger than what it’s replacing, unless you’re talking about jumbo jets or the new driver sitting in your golf bag?

Rechargeable batteries are smaller than they used to be and last longer, and your iPod holds your entire music collection that used to take up 20 milk crates in your cramped university dorm quarters.

But then there’s the car key. It’s … bigger … bulkier … it’s not even really a key, per se. It’s what’s called a “fob.” It’s a remote control with buttons and it contains electronics to let your car know that you’re nearby so that when you lift the handle, you can get in … without a traditional key or lock. The fob will even allow the car to be started without it ever having to come in contact with any part of the car: It just needs to be on you somewhere.

Coupled with the “start” button that also takes the place of the twist of a key, that means fewer moving parts — or no moving parts at all — that can wear out. The fob does much more than the old-style key, so one could forgive its additional size and weight.

Unfortunately, this new technology is the kind that has to interact with human beings such as myself. I already spend too much time looking for my car keys. It’s usually a frantic ritual that takes place exactly when I need to be out the door and driving down the road.

Sure, but what I really don’t like is that now, once I have found the keys, I’ll lose them again inside the very vehicle I’m driving, while I’m driving.

Since the modern car doesn’t require the fob to actually come in contact with any part of the car like the old-time key used to do, it ends up in my purse, or jacket pocket, the console, jammed between the front seats or maybe even under the seats. At least when the old-style metallic key was stuck in the column, you knew where it was for your entire trip: either in the car, or lost. Now, it could be lost no matter what.

The other day, after stopping for gas, I couldn’t locate the fob. Did I leave it on the desk where I signed the Visa slip? Maybe I left it in the bathroom. Did I check the top of the gas pump? Rather than do all that looking, I simply tried to start the car. If it starts up, I know the key is somewhere close by and I can localize my search.

I have to say, it’s really frustrating. The fob is really too large to attach to the rest of my keys, so it’s a separate do-dad that apparently has a wandering mind all its own.

Yes, fob technology is important for preventing theft since there’s no physical point (the ignition) for would-be crooks to mess with, but I was kind of hoping that new technology might actually do away with any type of key I could lose at the worst possible time and not actually make the key-loss problem even more of a problem.

I thought about tying it to my purse since I usually don’t travel without it, but there are times where I just need to unlock the car to get the milk — that I also forgot about — out of the cargo area. I don’t need both the purse and the key for that chore and, as many of you out there might also do, I change purses depending on the occasion. More than once I’ve gone dashing out of the house only to yank on the handle of the car and have it snap back in protest as if to say, “Look, goof, for the 100th time, you need the key fob to get in.” Search the purse, frisk myself in the driveway and then run back into the house to hunt for the fob, which was actually in the bathroom where I left it.

Good gravy, there must be a better way. Could the fob be embedded into my wallet? How about my laptop? I always know where that is and, honestly, I don’t leave home without it. The perfect solution might be to embed the fob circuitry into my cell phone. Great idea, but where did I put the cell phone? Maybe we should go back to the key. When I drove, at least I knew where it was.

Rhonda Wheeler is a journalist with Wheelbase Media, a worldwide supplier of automotive news, features and reviews. You can e-mail her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws/media and clicking the contact link.

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