Losing your car key is no small matter

Jim Henry is a special correspondent for Automotive News

It’s shocking that replacing a smart car key -- one with an embedded computer chip -- is so expensive, running as much as $400, consumer advocates and dealership F&I managers say.

Given that, it’s also surprising that most dealerships don’t offer key-replacement insurance. In an informal online survey of dealerships this year, 29 percent of respondents told Automotive News they offer it -- which suggests that 71 percent don’t.

That probably varies by brand. Some brands, including luxury imports, rely on smart keys more than others. But some high-volume models from Nissan and Toyota offer smart keys and push-button starters, too.

Some dealerships don’t offer key-replacement insurance to save time. They’re trimming their menus, and extended-service contracts and GAP trump key replacement.

But more and more consumers are learning the hard way that a replacement key costs an arm and a leg. It’s easy to find angry comments online.

This isn’t a new controversy. Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, said by phone this week that the consumer-advocate group complained to the Federal Trade Commission six years ago that car companies charged too much for replacing smart keys and that the automakers allegedly refused to share data so independent shops could make cheaper replacement keys.

Just two weeks ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association would have had the effect of allowing automakers to withhold electronic key code data from independent locksmiths.

The auto industry, the aftermarket and consumer advocates don’t agree on much. But it’s about time they agree that the high cost of key replacement is a problem.