Caroline Paul confronts a smart key that unlocks her car while she’s surfing
By Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Tech Page One February 14 2014
Recently I acquired a new car, the first in 14 years (I wrote about it here). It was a Chevrolet Volt, with cutting-edge hybrid technology and a Car of the Year award in 2012, but the agent who sold it to me seemed impressed most of all with its “smart key.” Since I misplace my car keys often, a smart key conjured up visions of something that would come running when called. Sadly, that was not what it was. It was interesting nonetheless: a tiny electronic gizmo that remotely spoke to the car.
This meant that things I had done for my whole life without complaint or even an inkling that they were burdensome were now eliminated. No more tiresome inserting-key-into-ignition-and-turning, for instance. I could simply push a button to start the car if the smart key was nearby. No more fishing around in my bags or unsightly pocket-patting to find the old key fob. Within three feet of the doors, the smart key automatically unlocked the car. “Neat,” I said.
Soon after, I went surfing. I usually take my key with me in my wetsuit. Belatedly it occurred to me: a smart key is not waterproof. What to do? Hide it on my car? That wasn’t feasible, as it meant the car would automatically unlock, even when the key stayed hidden. Call a locksmith to make a door key and hide the smart key inside the car? Nope. Still within three feet. Then I had an epiphany: metal would interrupt the transmitter! I searched at local hardware stores and on the internet, but the lockboxes and magnetic key holders were all plastic. I bought a thick, albeit plastic lockbox. The doors still opened.
I called my local Chevrolet dealer. I told them I wanted a key that wasn’t smart, that I could put in my wetsuit. They seemed puzzled, and told me they didn’t make a key like that anymore. “Please do,” I said, thinking that they were joking.
I drove the car to them in person. In person, they shook their heads. “We’ve never heard of this problem before.”
So I asked them to disable the automatic door unlocking aspect of the smart key.
That couldn’t be done either.
“Hold it,” I said. “You have a technology that you can’t override?” I had read enough science fiction to know that this was where things went terribly, terribly wrong.
I visited the Chevrolet Volt forum on the internet. Everyone seemed to love the smart key and its ability to open the doors without a button command. Clearly these people weren’t surfers. I wondered if they exercised at all, given their excitement at not having to – literally – lift a finger. When I explained my dilemma, the chat room world was stumped. Someone suggested forcibly removing the battery from the fob, but warned that the chip might reset itself. This meant that when the battery was reinserted, the car would fail to start.
This smart key was starting to look very, very dumb.
Just five years ago the goal of the best technology was that it performed what we asked of it, like an eager butler on Downton Abbey. But now it was supposed to go one step further. Technology is being designed to anticipate our need before we ask. But what happens if it anticipates wrong? Sometimes a key within three feet of a car does not mean the human wants to open it. Sometimes it means she’s gone surfing.
I’m not just bashing the Volt makers. I love its hybrid technology, which is the primary reason I bought it. And I’m told this smart key is top of the line; all car companies will probably soon adopt it. Still, this was getting to be a real hassle.
The issue was finally solved, but not by Chevrolet, and not by a computer expert. “Aluminum foil,” suggested my surfer buddy, Rodes. Aluminum foil? You mean that kitchen item, invented back in 1910? Sure enough, just one thin layer around the smart key did the trick. The smart key could no longer communicate with the car, no matter how close it was. Aluminum foil! Such a low-tech item, easily solving a high-tech conundrum. I put the smart key, no longer smart, in the lockbox, attached it to my car, and went surfing.