WASHINGTON -- A consumer group is asking the federal government to stop automakers and their dealers from using high-tech vehicle keys to pick customers' pockets.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said consumers sometimes pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars to replace keys with embedded computer codes.
He charged that car companies refuse to release the information that aftermarket stores or locksmiths would need to provide replacement keys at competitive prices.
He said the theft-prevention value of the so-called smart key systems is overrated.
Ditlow made the charges in a petition Monday, March 13, to the Federal Trade Commission. He said industry key replacement polices represent an unfair trade practice.
"The specter of auto theft does not justify auto companies picking the pockets of consumers by charging hundreds of dollars more for replacement keys than they could in a competitive market," he wrote.
Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the FTC does not need to act in this case.
He said some automakers already provide information to locksmiths, and the industry as a whole is looking for a uniform way to make key codes available without increasing the threat of vehicle theft.
Law enforcement agencies agree, he said, that the computerized key systems have been one of the most effective theft deterrents ever created.
The alliance represents nine automakers with more than 80 percent of the U.S. market.
Ditlow's petition cites a variety of real-world examples to bolster his argument.
He said the typical cost of replacing a single so-called smart key is more than $150 -- or more than 12 times the cost of the average mechanical key.
The Center for Auto Safety said the cost soars into the thousands of dollars if the automaker or dealership replaces a vehicle's electronic control module.
Some advanced systems are programmed so that the modules are matched to a unique set of keys. If the original keys are lost or damaged, the module also must be replaced.
Ditlow said certain Mercedes-Benz models are among the most costly.
You may e-mail Harry Stoffer at [email protected]