Who to call when you lose your car keys or get locked out?

Numerous people lose their car keys, get locked out of their car or have an automotive lock fail every day. Choosing or knowing who to call can be an educational, costly and stressful situation. Starting in the mid eighties, vehicle locks and keys became more complex supposedly to prevent theft. Using a slim jim to open a locked car, which unlocked most cars prior to this time, now only caused costly damage and frustration. With each passing year auto engineers designed more secure locks, creating a need for new opening methods and service personnel with a high degree of expertise.

Many vehicles were damaged by unskilled individuals attempting to unlock vehicles. New tools and instructional manuals were introduced on a yearly basis, which only prompted the vehicle manufacturers to make more secure designs. Today, many foreign vehicles are virtually impossible to open without damaging the vehicle. This is not the case with all of them, but most German vehicles along with certain Honda and Toyota vehicles can only be opened without damage by the most skilled technicians.

At the same time, vehicle keys that were originally very simple designs much like your house key became more complex and had electronics added to them. Existing key cutting equipment became obsolete, requiring very costly CNC milling machines to cut the keys. Electronic programming tools, easily costing close to 10K are now required to enable the key to communicate with the vehicles computer in order for the vehicle to start.

When keys are lost or the vehicle is locked with the keys inside, options have become very limited. Some vehicles can be opened by using a long metal rod inserted between the door frame and car body, but extreme caution must be taken as thousands of dollars in damage could result. The two damage free solutions are calling a professional automotive locksmith or having the car towed to the new car dealer. When choosing a locksmith, you must choose one who specializes in vehicles and guarantees his work to be damage free. Towing the car to the dealer carries the risk of having the vehicle damaged from towing it. the vehicle can be cosmeticaly damaged as well as having the transmission or suspension damaged. Only the most professional towing services should be hired and they need to guarantee the service is damage free.

When deciding which way to solve the dilemma of having your keys locked inside or losing your keys, several factors must be considered. Most German vehicles must be taken to the dealer as the Germans apparently do not understand that people can easily lose keys. They have made key generation and programming almost impossible and excessively expensive if the equipment is available to program the keys. Some require removing the computer from the vehicle and disassembling it so that chips can be unsoldered and read.

Ford, G.M., Chrysler, Honda, Nissan and newer Toyota vehicles can easily have keys originated and programmed as long as the programming update is available for current model year vehicles. Many of the newer milled keys for vehicles cannot be made at the dealer level. the equipment to generate these keys is extremely expensive and few franchised dealers outside of extremely large ones in major metropolitan areas desire to spend 10k on a key machine. These dealers must order the keys from the factory or have someone like myself make one.

I encounter quite a few customers who call a dealer and ask what a key costs. They are quoted the price of the key blank and want to use that to compare prices. They are not considering the cost to tow the vehicle to dealer or costs for damage from towing it. They also do not realize that in addition to the cost of the key, they will be charged for obtaining the key code as well as programming the key.

When all costs are factored in, it is almost the same price or less to have a professional automotive locksmith come to the vehicle and originate and program the key. If you are in a very remote location, the cost of a locksmith traveling to your car will be higher. Calling them out at night, on weekends or holidays also costs more. Just because service is available 24 hours a day does not mean that the price is the same on a Tuesday morning as opposed to the 4th of July.

While taking your vehicle to a dealer may be the only option, be prepared for the process taking several days. You are not the only person needing service, and in the case of German vehicles and others, keys may have to be shipped from the factory. Speed of service may be a very good reason to call a professional automotive locksmith.

I use the term professional automotive locksmith frequently, because it really does matter. I have had countless customers call me after they first called someone else who spent days, yes days and sometimes weeks trying to make a key or replace a lock. If the price seems very cheap, it probably reflects the skill level and quality of service you are going to receive. Professional automotive locksmiths generally belong to NASTF, National Auto Service Task Force, and ALOA, Associated Locksmith of America. Look closely at how professional the locksmith appears, if he looks like someone who’s last occupation was in a jail or a circus beware.

There are some very professional towing operations available to tow your car or open it, but you must be careful to choose the right one. Towing services and locksmiths associated with AAA must pass criminal background checks and meet other professional requirements, so that can be a good reference even if you are not a member. Call AAA and ask them for a referral, and while talking to them, you might want to purchase a membership. They are the emergency auto club service that sets the bar for excellence. As with any service provider, expect delays during storms, as everyone else is also experiencing the same need for service that you are.

The best advice is to never travel with just one set of keys, and keep the spare set in your pocket, not in the car, and never in the trunk.

Ignition lock failures and proper repair methods.


Modern ignition locks have become more complex and this has led to increased failure occurrences. Ford Focus’s, Honda’s, Toyota’s, Chrysler and GM locks may experience failures due to many causes such as wear, poor design and small amounts of foreign debris being inadvertently¬†inserted into the lock. Most failures result in the lock failing to operate with the proper key and require replacement or rebuilding.

Maintaining the use of the original key is extremely important. Most vehicles are now designed to use the same key for the ignition lock as well as other locks such as the trunk. When all keys are lost, a professional can obtain the original key code or use a door or trunk lock to generate a key. When locks using different keys are used to replace an existing ignition lock, a real problem is created, requiring the replacement of the lock when keys are lost. Locks that have failed should only be repaired by a professional automotive locksmith or a new car dealer that has the ability to code the new lock properly to match the original key. Many Asian auto makers only supply replacement locks that do not match the original keys. In this case it is very important to require the service provider have the new lock rekeyed to match the original key, by a competant automotive locksmith.

Most Honda, Toyota and other Asian vehicles are simpler to rebuild than replace do to the fact that easily rekeyed replacement locks are not available. Most Toyota failures occur from their use of split wafers, which I recommend be removed. Honda locks using a milled key instead of the older keys that can be cut on the same type of machine that cuts and duplicates common keys such as your house key, have split wafers that have been designed with a very fragile tip that is actuated by the key. These small tips, about the size of a large pin head can easily be broken off or deformed by a worn key or by forcing a key into a unlubricated lock.

Chrysler, Ford and G.M. locks that we use are produced by the same company that supplies the original manufacturer and we purchased them unkeyed so they can be matched to the original keys. Ford Focus locks had a severe design flaw and we replace those with a new lock utilizing a far stronger and reliable design. The same is true of some G.M. locks that were originally supplied by German or Asian companies, and they are replaced by an improved design lock.

Never use a replacement lock from an auto parts store. Only purchase a replacement lock from a professional automotive locksmith or new car dealer that can key the new lock to match the original key. I have encountered numerous aftermarket locks that have failed or the keys have been lost. Most of these locks are very inferior in material, design and security.

It is very important to use a professional automotive locksmith or new car dealer parts when replacing a lock. Not all locksmiths are competent to service vehicle locks. Vehicle locks and keys comprise the most complex devices that locksmiths service. Most commercial and residential locks are fairly easy to service but automotive lock servicing requires a very high knowledge of auto body service as well as steering column and interior panel removal. I have seen thousands of dollars in damage done by unskilled locksmiths and service techs that lacked the proper knowledge to service the locks.