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Key Programming Diagnostics

Sending a customer away because we’re not equipped to perform a job is money lost.

In the business of automotive repair, the more jobs we can do in house, the more profitable we become. Outsourcing aspects of a repair or sending a customer away because we’re not equipped to perform a certain job is simply money lost, and one of the more recent facets of our field that challenges our fulfillment of this goal is key programming.

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Physical keys are becoming extinct, with key fobs sitting atop the vehicle access hierarchy, and key cards with smart phone apps slowly filtering into the mix. Who would have thought years ago that having that key fob in your pocket would let you walk up, get in the car and go with the simple push of a button? And that the same key fob gives you remote start, opens hatches and single-handedly prevents the theft of your vehicle?

Key or no key, and conveniences aside, anti-theft and immobilizer systems have been an integral part of security and vehicle access for nearly 30 years. Early systems were basic in comparison to those of today, which increasingly require specific procedures and equipment for everything from a basic key replacement to no-start diagnosis that may be related to an immobilizer system.

In order to build your list of services that you offer, as well as give technicians the ability to efficiently perform the process, you’ll need equipment that can not only do the job, but can also intuitively take you through the steps, saving you the time of learning multiple new systems.

The basis of all key programming scan tool systems is the ability to perform key programming and immobilizer system diagnosis, but among the common functions you will grow to rely on are a system check to identify the number of keys programmed to a vehicle, adding and deleting key functions, replacing the immobilizer control unit or receiver or replacing the ECM. It may be more common to add a single key, but it’s also possible that all keys are lost for a vehicle, and “all keys lost” is another common function.

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The immobilizer and security systems on today’s vehicles can have multiple control modules that rely on the code from the key or key fob, and a full-function key programming and diagnostic tool is a necessity for diagnosing these systems.

The bottom line is the equipment you will need to offer full-service key programming. Here it is. One, you need to be able to communicate with the various control modules; a dedicated immobilizer scan tool does this for you; two, you will need a key fob/chip programmer; and three, a key fob emulator, which is a tool that not only decodes the data from a vehicle key chip, but it also can emulate the chip as well as read the signal from the vehicle transponder that communicates with the key. This is a very important part of diagnosis.

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Some European vehicles require very specialized procedures for key programming, as they have for many years in other aspects of electronics, so I’m sure that’s no surprise. If you service European, primarily Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes, you may have to purchase some additional adapter kits for the needed functionality, but it’s all readily available.

Researching the equipment you buy is as important as buying it, and most immobilizer scan tool manufacturers provide a detailed list of functions, broken down by model, which will help you determine if it offers functions for the vehicles you work on most.

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As many of the vehicles that employ these systems begin to fall out of warranty, you’ll start to see more and more problems related to these systems show up in your shop. We’re already familiar with diagnostic scan tools and it’s easy to draw a parallel between key programming and many other electronic services on new vehicles. You simply need a scan tool to get the job done, and if you want to remain competitive and profitable, you have no choice. Key programming isn’t the future. It is now. TS

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