The Evolution of the Car Key, and Why You Should Care

The average consumer may not realize this, but there are quite a few different types of automotive keys out there. As with much of today’s world, the car key is ever-evolving as technology and products change.

When it comes to your car’s security, it can be important to understand the difference between the key types and how each one came to be.

When it comes time for  locksmithing services for your car, it can be important – or at the very least helpful – to know what type of key your car has.

Below, our locksmith experts outline the different types of keys and how they’ve evolved, along with some important information for each type.

Traditional Keys:

Late 1940s:

Mechanical keys have provided basic security to motor vehicles since their inception. Currently, there are a few types of mechanical keys commonly seen.

Edge cut mechanical key

Edge cut keys: This is a garden variety key that you would find with most vehicles made before 2013, with the cuts directly on the edge of the key. These can be duplicated by most standard key machines that you would find in a hardware store or similar. If all copies of an edge cut key are lost, though, it typically requires a trained locksmith to determine the specifications or “code” of the key for that specific vehicle.


High Security or Side-Winder type keys: These are still mechanical keys, however in the mid 1970’s, some manufacturers decided they wanted to increase the security of their vehicles. They did this by implementing the use of a side-winder type key, which cannot be copied on standard key duplicators. These keys require a specialized type of cutter, which literally engraves the cut specifications on to the keyblade. Side-winder keys have since become extremely common on modern vehicles.

Lexus Sidewinder Key

Remote Keys:

The next evolution in car keys allow users to remotely lock and unlock their vehicle. They also include additional functions such as remote unlocking of the trunk, providing a panic button on the remote, and remotely starting the vehicle.

Remotes come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, frequencies and levels of security. Any Pop-A-Lock expert would be glad to answer any questions you have and help direct you toward the best remote key for your needs!


VAT keys were the first remote keys on the market. In the mid-1980s, General Motors began production on a new vehicle security system. In short, the new system made brute force attacks on the vehicle lock system less effective because the vehicles now also had an electronic “signature” that had to match what it expected to see when started.

VAT keys remained popular through the early 2000’s when General Motors completely switched over to the more effective RFID or transponder key system for the majority of its vehicles.

Early 2000s:

Transponder keys combine a mechanical edge or sidewinder key with a small RFID chip or RFID emulation circuit. These keys help further deter brute force attacks on vehicle locking systems.

When the vehicles sense a transponder key enter the ignition or when the ignition is rotated, the ignition lock cylinder and the transponder key communicate with radio frequencies. This lets the vehicle computer know if the key trying to turn on the vehicle is an authorized key.

Since their inception, transponder keys have evolved to be widely popular and increasingly secure. If you’ve driven a car made in the early 2000s, you’ve probably used one of these.

When transponder keys are lost or broken, creating a new key can present a significant challenge. There are a wide array of different chips, technologies and security levels across the spectrum of transponder-equipped vehicles, and a great deal of training and technology are needed to create new copies. But don’t worry, our Pop-A-Lock technicians have you covered! Call us today and we can help you get any new key you need. 

Today’s Keys

After decades of evolution, vehicle manufacturers continue to increase cars’ security. Today, there are two types of keys that provide the highest level of both security and convenience.


Remote Head Keys were the next step in the vehicle key evolution. As technology improved, manufacturers began to combine the mechanical key, the remote and often the transponder into a single unit. Most commonly-bought vehicles today use remote head keys, and they provide both additional security of the advanced key systems, as well as the convenience of conventional mechanical-only key systems.

Slot Key

Slot Keys were first introduced by BMW. The new key concept required no rotation of a key switch. Instead, you would insert a slot key or key fob into a slot on the dash and push a button to start the vehicle. This cut down on the number of moving mechanical parts, and relied solely on the electronic security embedded in the slot key to prevent unauthorized vehicle access.

Since then, a number of manufacturers – such as Nissan and Chrysler – have introduced key types that eliminated the need for the mechanical portion of the key entirely. Instead, the new keys have electronic-only access control for the vehicle. These are known as proximity keys. 

As transponder identification efficiency and range continued to increase, manufactures were able to produce vehicles with proximity keys – AKA touchless or smart keys – for their vehicles. This latest key system simply requires that the fob or smart key be in proximity of the vehicle in order to gain access or start the vehicle.

This system provides a great deal of convenience to owners but resulted in a higher cost of replacement in the case of lost or stolen keys.

There are quite a few key types and systems out there, each of which requires different knowledge and training on how to duplicate or replace. Knowing what type of key your vehicle has can be useful information if and when you find yourself calling a locksmith.

No matter what type of key you have, Pop-A-Lock has your back! Our technicians are trained and equipped to duplicate or replace virtually every make and model of vehicle key, and our prices are often deeply discounted from your what your local dealer can offer. Call us today to get a free quote!

FAQ: Can I Replace a Car Key Without Having the Original?

Many of us rely on our cars for everything –  from getting to work to running errands to picking up kids or friends. So, if you lose a key or break it off in your ignition, it can seem like a nightmare. And it can be especially stressful if you don’t have a spare key. If this happens to you, don’t panic! You might not realize this, but it’s possible for locksmiths to make a copy of your car key, even if you don’t have the original. 

What Kind of Replacement Key Will You Need?

If you find yourself in need of an extra car key, the first thing you need to do is determine what kind of key you’ll need.

If you own a car from 1981 or earlier, you may just need a simple key cut from a standard key block.

Newer-model cars have something called transponder keys, which include programmed chips as safety features. There’s more to duplicating a transponder key than cutting a new one. If you do cut a new one, it still wouldn’t turn on the car without the proper programming. Our locksmiths are trained to both cut and program a new transponder key for you.

A third kind of car key is a smart key. Smart keys act as a remote and are not like traditional keys at all. These resemble an attached key fob and do not require the traditional means of turning the ignition. Our technicians are trained in programming smart keys as well.

Not matter what kind of key your car has, we’ve got you covered!

house key isolated object

Traditional Key

Blog 07 TransponderKeys

Transponder Key

Blog 07 SmartKeys

Smart Key

Don’t Have the Original Key?

If your original key is lost of broken, the good news is that you can still get a replacement!

Option 1 – Dealer

You could go to the dealer to get a replacement, but that tends to be very expensive. Especially if you need your vehicle to be towed to the dealership.

Option 2 – Locksmith

A more affordable option is to call an auto locksmith. In fact, many dealers utilize the services of outside locksmiths for replacement keys and many locksmiths can cut and program the exact same key for about 50% less cost than a dealership.

An experienced locksmith will be able to make a replacement key for you even if you do not have the original. When you contact a locksmith, you’ll need to give the company some information about the key, and then they will likely be able to help you replace it.

What Will Your Locksmith Will Need to Know?

First, you’ll need to know the year, make and model of your car. You’ll also be asked to prove ownership of the vehicle, so have your registration or title handy. Finally, the locksmith will need to know your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). The VIN number can be found either on the driver’s side doorpost or stamped on a metal plate on the driver’s side dashboard.

If you have it, your key identification number (also known as a key code) can be super helpful information for the locksmith to have. It can usually be found in your car manual; however if you don’t have access to the information, it’s not a necessity.

If you think your keys have been stolen, let the locksmith know. If this is the case, he or she will need to reprogram your car in a way so that the old keys will no longer work.

Do You Need to Worry About a Tow?

No, our locksmiths come to you!

If you need an emergency locksmith to come meet you, make sure that you can provide the address or cross streets of your location. Our locksmiths use the newest technology to cut your new key and program your key or smart key on-site – no matter where you are or what type of vehicle you need help with. The services of a skilled professional also extend to keys for scooters, trucks, vans, caravans, and motorcycles.

The loss or damage of your only car key is a stressful situation. Pop-A-Lock Locksmiths can help you handle your emergency efficiently and safely. Our professionals are trained to handle nearly all car models, so you can be assured that your vehicle is in excellent hands. Rest assured, your key will be replaced and no damage will be done to your car in the process. If you need immediate help, Contact us today!