Evolution of the car key – From functional necessity to ultimate status symbol – TopAuto
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Monday / 17 January 2022
HomeFeaturesEvolution of the car key – From functional necessity to ultimate status symbol

Evolution of the car key – From functional necessity to ultimate status symbol

At first, it was aimed at functionality. Then, it turned into the ultimate status symbol.

You could forget about the shoes or watch you were wearing, as a car key placed on a table means much more in the eyes of the public.

As sophisticated electronics found their way into key fobs to prevent theft, the design of the car key has moved to an aesthetic masterpiece.

This is its journey.

How it started

Although the car key can be traced back to the early 1900s, the traditional metal key we’ve come to know was first introduced in the late 1940s.

It was then only in the 1960s that many vehicles started using universal keys for both ignition and locks.

For several decades, key designs remained relatively untouched – until the remote keyless entry fob was introduced in the 1990s.

Coined after the word “fuppe,” which translates in German to pocket, the fob gave owners the ability to lock and unlock their vehicle’s doors remotely.

As technology progressed, the fobs gained more functionality and could be used for a lot more than unlocking doors.

The switchblade evolution

Mercedes-Benz introduced a new trend in the 1990s – the switchblade key fob for its premium roadsters.

A press of a button released the key blade from inside the fob, ready to be inserted into the ignition.

In the early 2000s, fobs further advanced into intelligent keys that merely needed to be in the vehicle’s vicinity to lock, unlock, and start cars at the push of a button.

With it, the shapes began changing.

Porsche keys evolved into mini-models of the cars themselves, and BMW even introduced a hefty fob with a digital display with functions for low-speed manoeuvering from outside of the vehicle.

Renault makes use of a thickish card rather than a key altogether.

Meanwhile, modern Land Rovers like the new Discovery have a waterproof “activity key band” that can be used to lock or unlock the vehicle – keeping the regular key and any other valuables safely locked inside while you are out living life.

The traditional metal key was quickly becoming a relic of the past.

Using an app

As if keyless entry-and-start was not a significant enough shift, we’re now on the cusp of going keyless – with several manufacturers moving towards app-based access and starting systems.

Modern EV makers like Rivian and Lucid have moved entirely to card and app-based keys.

We see similar technology on other electric vehicles like the BMW IX, Jaguar I-PACE, and upcoming VW ID.4.

Preconditioning the car and starting it is just a few screen taps away on a smartphone app these days.

It allows for more control, too.

Apps for these cars manage vehicle functions like setting climate control at a set time before leaving your home, providing real-time monitoring of battery charge levels, and even remote route planning.

From carrying two keys to operate a vehicle, to being keyless, to using nothing but a phone – one of the greatest innovations is not the shift to electric drive, but one of the main points of interaction with the car: the key.

As we move into 2022, we are not only saying goodbye to internal combustion engines, but also the age-old status symbol which denoted the type of car you drove.

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