Once, a key fob was simply something on which to hang your keys.
That era has gone the way of the cassette deck. Today's fobs are high-tech jewelry, status symbols and conversation pieces that just happen to start cars. And at prices up to $400, they're not inexpensive to replace, and your car insurance covers them only under the right conditions.
Key fobs that remotely open doors and trunks and sound a panic alarm have become commonplace on today's vehicles. Often, fobs reflect the brand images of the cars they're designed for. Volvo key fobs, for instance, tend to boast safety and security features such as remote controls for lights, while Land Rover fobs are notably rugged and durable, encased in rubber.
Because they're easy-to-display talismans denoting their owners' stature as luxury car drivers, key fobs have also become something of a status symbol. Keys tossed into the middle of a restaurant table say, discreetly, "It's such a chore carrying around this big attention-getting fob for my Mercedes Maybach."
Smart doesn't mean they don't get lost
At the upper end of key fobs are smart keys, until recently found only on high-end luxury models, such as Mercedes-Benz, one of the first manufacturers to use them, and the company that coined the term "SmartKey."
These either are inserted into the dash or remain in the owner's pocket or purse, and allow the driver to start the car by pressing a button, says Ron Montoya, consumer advice associate for Santa Monica, Calif.-based auto website Edmunds.com.
"They come bundled with luxury packages and allow you to not have a key at all," he says. "They let you start the car, open the trunk and open the locks as well without even taking the key fob out of your pocket. . . . Lexus even has one that looks like a credit card, making it very easy to carry in your pocket."
If you lose a smart key, your dealership is the only place you're going to be able to replace it, Montoya says. That's because smart keys use a rolling code to prevent thieves from employing code-grabbers to override remotes.
Why wait until you lose both keys?
Car buyers typically get two key fobs and a valet key when buying a brand-new car, Montoya says. But it's not uncommon for one of those to be misplaced. And when that happens, it's important to be proactive.
If you're someone who tends to lose keys, he adds, "buy an extra ahead of time, when you have the money and it's convenient, rather than when you've already lost the key, are between paychecks, and it's not as easy to replace."
A pocket or purse is where smart keys tend to be carried, Montoya notes, "and those are the very places you will feel the pain when you lose them." Replacing one can cost from $220 (Nissan Altima) to $400 (Acura RL.)
And what if someone got hold of your smart keys, and you are afraid they will use them to break in to your car? In that case, the car locks would have to be reprogrammed at the dealership, Montoya says. "That would be expensive in itself, because you'd be paying for about an hour of labor," he says.
Far more basic than a smart key is the modern electronic fob known as a remote or transmitter, from which a key shank emerges. It costs from $50 to $90 to replace, based on its design and the vehicle brand. Because fobs have to be programmed, you can either submit to a half hour to an hour of labor costs at the dealership, or try programming yourself, using directions in your owner's manual.
The switchblade key is a subset within this category. The shank folds safely within the fob when not in use. At the press of a button on the fob, the shank leaps from the fob like a switchblade knife. But if lost, you will have to buy a new switchblade for $200 to $300 and have both shank and fob programmed.
Are you covered?
According to Dick Luedke, spokesman for Bloomington, Ill.-based State Farm Insurance, if you have comprehensive auto insurance, replacing your key fob would be covered if it is a fob that can start your automobile.
This coverage would be subject to satisfying the policy's deductible, sometimes as high as $500 or $1,000, he says. "There would be a claim if the key fob costs more than the deductible," he adds. "The point I want to make, though, is that if the key fob is just decorative, it would not be considered automobile equipment. The key -- no pun intended -- is it has to be part of the car's equipment."
But if it is, make sure you record all the costs you can incur. You might have to have your car towed, or call a locksmith. Both are covered under emergency road service coverage.