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Happiness is a car key with a mind of its own


THE KEY TO happiness, at least in the short term, is to never lose a car key. This is especially true if your missing key is "smart" - electronically coded to send signals to the car's ignition.

I have such a key, and it joins a long list of objects that seem to be brighter than their owner.

Like many lessons in life, I learned about smart keys, an anti-theft feature in many cars, by experience. Recently, I spent an afternoon watching television in the waiting room of Don White's Chrysler dealership in Cockeysville while a new key and transmitter were getting taught to work in a 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, my new car.

I had mixed emotions about the $85 experience. On the up side, I was delighted that I was going to possess two keys and accompanying transmitters. Ever since spring when I bought the used car from my brother, I had been making do with one set of keys, and that scared me.

Family life has taught me that one of my duties is to prepare the household for the worst-case scenario. Once such scenario would be having your car parked at your house but not having the key to start it. The key would either be lost or jingling in the pocket of another family member who was frolicking many miles away.

Years ago, when my brother drove this car away from a dealer outside Boston, it had two sets of smart keys. But somehow in the hubbub of daily life, one key went missing. My brother's theory is that it slipped off a rack in his kitchen, took a dive into a wastebasket and was never seen again.

Last week, when I checked the car in with James Johnson at the service desk of the Cockeysville dealership, I was tempted to tell him "My brother did it! He was the one, who lost the key." Sibling rivalry never dies. But of all the questions Johnson asked me - name, address, make, model and the car's VIN - not one dealt with blame.

Moreover, I was grateful that I had been squeezed into the service lineup on short notice. Getting a new smart key and transmitter is not a lickety-spilt process. You have to order the parts from the parts department, then make arrangements with the service department to get it programmed. You have to produce the car as well.

While nobody likes to wait, I was heartened to learn that a thief couldn't steal my car, drive to a Chrysler dealer and get another key and transmitter made, at least not without an appointment, some delay and some amount of paperwork.

When I called the dealer, the folks there said they would have to order the transmitter. Late one Friday afternoon about a week later, I called and was told I was in luck. The transmitter was in the house and if I hurried out there, I could get my car in an empty slot in the service lineup. I hung up the phone and scooted up Interstate 83.

There are, I learned later, alternatives to getting spare smart keys made at a dealer. I went online and found at least two Web sites, and, that said they had operations in the Baltimore area. By filling out forms that asked for make, model and number of keys needed, I found the Web sites' prices were comparable to what I paid at the dealer.

The online enterprises said they provide keys without the hassle of going to a dealer. Maybe so. But when I am getting keys and devices that will open my car doors and start its engine, I like to do it in a building. That brick and mortar make me feel secure. I like to think that if I had any subsequent key problems, the building where I had the work done would be easy to find.

Sitting in the waiting room reminded me of being in the waiting room of a doctor's office. Once I heard the troubles of the people sitting around me, I began to feel better. For example, I watched as a tow truck gingerly deposited a Dodge Durango on the parking lot. The owner of that SUV had lost all her smart keys. When that happens, your vehicle has to be towed to the shop for a day's worth of work. At least I had one working key and a sure ride home.

If I had two working smart keys, I could, according to the owner's manual, buy another smart key and program it myself. But after reading about what the self-programming procedure entailed - turning the ignition on and off for a set number of seconds, then waiting for lights to flash and bells to chime - I was glad that my status as a one-key man made me ineligible to attempt that endeavor.

Intelligence can work against you. Your smart key can behave like a smart aleck. That seems to be what happened when the young man driving my car from the dealer's parking lot into the service bay tried to start it with the wrong key. The key he used looked smart but had not yet been programmed to work with the car. The engine ran for two minutes, then shut off. This happened three times. After the third false start, the car took a little nap. It refused to start. This is an anti-theft feature, something designed to outfox a thief. In this case, it outfoxed a good guy.

After about an hour, the car stirred from its nap. This time the car was started with the correctly educated key, driven into a service bay where the new spare key was instructed in the subtleties of how to get along with the car's electronic components.

Now I have two exceptionally bright car keys. I just hope I am never dumb enough to lose them.

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