From metal to mobile: the evolution of the car key

A staple of American car culture for the past hundred years, the classic car key has evolved drastically over time and may one day become obsolete as drivers look to more convenient solutions to operate their vehicles.

Although car keys can be traced back to the early 20th century, the traditional metal key we’ve come to know and associate with cars was first introduced in the late 1940’s. Unlike their early predecessors, these keys could be used to turn on the ignition and start the car. Prior to the 1960’s, some vehicles required two separate keys: one key to start the engine and another to lock its doors.

1984 Volkswagen Rabbit key

From the early 1950’s to the late 1970’s, Volkswagen designed 13 different key profiles, or blanks, for their vehicles. Each profile had a unique design and a different two letter code that corresponded with a particular lock. The corresponding code was also listed on an inconspicuous place on the car, like the ignition handle. Some keys had a stamped VW logo while others featured a cut out emblem on the head of the key.

For several decades, the design of the car key remained relatively untouched until the remote keyless entry fob was introduced in the 1990’s. Coined after the word “fuppe,” which translates in German to pocket, the fob gave owners the ability lock and unlock the doors of their vehicle by emitting a coded signal through radio waves to a receiver in the car. As technology increased, the fobs gained more functionality and could be used to open the trunk, activate the alarm system and even start the car remotely.

Another innovation introduced in the 1990’s by a German automaker was the switchblade key fob. The car key pops out of a remote-locking fob and would become synonymous with most modern Volkswagen models including the GTI and New Beetle. These keys became increasingly popular for their compact nature and fun, flip function.

“The key has come a long way,” said Louis Fourie, past president of Society of Automotive Historians. “From the lever and push button start of early vehicles and the steering column lock on the early Beetles, to the key fobs with a proximity feature and now mobile keys, the evolution of the car key has made it as convenient as can be for drivers.”

In the early 2000’s, the fob advanced into a smart key which doesn’t have to be inserted into the car’s ignition – just simply placed in the vehicle to activate the push button start. The traditional metal key is quickly becoming a relic of the past, as for some vehicles, drivers can now download an app on their smart phone to control it..

The Volkswagen ID.4 EV utilizes keyless entry to enable seamless entry into the vehicle. Owners can use the Volkswagen Car-Net®1 app to use their smartphone like a remote control to manage vehicle functions like setting climate control, monitoring current charge level and remote route planning.

“When developing the Car-Net app we took into consideration all the things that matter to our drivers,” said Shelly Desmet, Digital Marketing Manager, Connected Services. “The way people are driving is changing and we are here to provide solutions that help make every day easier.”

From having to carry two keys to operate a  car to being keyless and being able to operate one  with a phone, we have come a long way in key design. With new products like app-based keys on the horizon, Volkswagen is constantly looking toward the future to enhance convenience, safety and technology for all drivers.