car keys with mercedes emblem

How Do Car Key Fobs Work?

In the fast-paced world of automotive technology, one of the most significant advancements has been the development of modern car key fobs. The fact that someone can not only unlock their vehicle simply by standing next to it, but also start the engine by sending a signal to the ignition is astounding. 


But how exactly did cars evolve from only being able to handle a singular key to becoming as technologically savvy as they are now?

Invention and Evolution

While the concept of the key fob dates back to the early 1900s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that key fobs were utilized. At that time, General Motors (GM) introduced the first commercially successful remote keyless entry system (RKE) in their Cadillac models. Naturally, the concept proved to be wildly popular, and thus became the pivotal moment that marked the birth of modern key fobs.

Now, to be fair, while the design was revolutionary in the 1980s, it pales to the amount of technology implemented in a key fob today. The first ever key fob was a simple radio transmitter that communicated with a car’s RKE system through short-range radio waves. The key fob was then used to lock and unlock car doors remotely, eliminating the need to manually insert a key into the lock. As time progressed, so did the ambitions of car manufacturers, and thus a modern key fob for a vehicle as common as a Hyundai Elantra or a Ford Explorer has numerous capacities in comparison to the key fob from several decades ago.

How Key Fobs Work

Modern key fobs are miniature electronic devices that utilize both radio frequency identification and rolling code technology to communicate with the car’s system. When a button is pressed on the key fob, it emits a unique radio signal containing an encrypted code. The car’s RKE system then in turn receives the signal and validates the code’s authenticity.

The rolling code technology is a crucial security measure that prevents unauthorized access. Every time the key fob is used, it generates a new code, which in turn makes it difficult for hackers to intercept and duplicate the signal. Additionally, modern key fobs often use proximity sensors, allowing for both convenience while maintaining the utmost security.

Benefits of Key Fobs


The primary benefit of key fobs is convenience. Not only are you able to unlock or lock your vehicle with the push of a button, but you’re able to start the engine from outside the vehicle — which is a heaven sent feature when you live in a place as horribly hot as Arizona, and want to slide into a car with AC, rather than an oven. Moreover, not only does the key fob eliminate having to fumble for keys in pockets or bags, but the hands-free access is also pretty useful when carrying groceries or other items.

Enhanced Security

An unexpected but phenomenal benefit of improved technology in keyfobs is car security. With rolling code technology and encrypted communication, it’s quite the challenge for thieves to bypass the system and steal the car. As such, it’s no surprise that key fobs have led to a decline in car theft rates and increased peace of mind for car owners.

Remote Start Functionality

I know we talked about this already, but really, enabling drivers to start their cars from a distance is amazing. Do you remember the days you had to rush to your vehicle in the frigid cold in the middle of winter, scrape off the frost from your windows, and shiver to death inside your ice cube of a car? Or stewing inside your car in the middle of summer as you waited for the AC to circulate? Needless to say, the remote start functionality in a car is fantastic.

Vehicle Locator

We’ve all done this — walking out of a grocery store or some other place, only to realize that you can’t find your car, and then fish through your pocket to start honking the horn of your car in a desperate attempt to locate it in the sea of cars in front of you. I honestly can’t fathom the amount of time that used to be wasted when people didn’t have this feature readily available to them.

Customizable Settings

Some of the more advanced key fobs allow car owners to customize their preferences, such as seat positions, climate control settings, and audio system preferences. This personalization adds a touch of luxury and comfort to the driving experience.

Immobilizer System

This tags along with what was mentioned before regarding theft protection, but modern key fobs are often linked to the car’s immobilizer system, which prevents the vehicle from starting without the correct fob present. This provides an additional layer of protection against unauthorized access and vehicle theft.

Integration With Mobile Apps

While some of us haven’t engaged with these sorts of key fobs, there are car manufacturers that have begun to integrate key fob tech into mobile apps, thereby allowing drivers to make their phone a key fob. Given the fact that the majority of Americans have their phone on them at all times, this sort of innovation can be considered incredibly convenient.

From its inception as a device solely used to remotely lock and unlock vehicles, to its current status as a device with  various capacities, the key fob has become an indispensable part of modern car ownership. With their convenience, enhanced security features, and customizable settings, key fobs have changed the way we interact with our vehicles, making driving experiences safer, more comfortable, and efficient. People from half a century ago probably couldn’t even fathom how manufacturers would revolutionize the way we as consumers interact with our vehicles, and likewise, we can only imagine what sorts of technological advancements lie in store for the future of key fobs.

If you would like to have our team program your key fob, or you have other questions about our automotive services, check out our automotive section, or  schedule an appointment by clicking the button below!

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