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Automotive Key Programming Guide

The Good, Better, and Best of Key Programming Machines

If you’ve been in the Automotive Lock and Key industry for any length of time, then you’ve seen radical changes in automotive keys. The transition has been hard for everyone. Think about it, you buy a new (to you) vehicle and go to get an additional key made and it cost $300! It’s quite the shock, up until the late 1990’s a key for your car was $2-$10 max. At that same time a locksmith could use 1 key machine for everything. Essentially, cutting a KW1 Kwikset key and H60 Ford Key was about the same, the cost of the two keys were both WAY under .50 cents. After you were done cutting the key (and checking it worked 12) you were done! Today, we live in a new world… If you want to be in the automotive Lock & Key and/or locksmith business, it’s doing to require a bit more than it did back in the 1990’s. Don’t worry though, this article is for you! I’m going to walk you through the process. Here we go!

Let’s start with what is actually happening every time you start a modern automobile

Now, I’m going to give you a simple version of the process, but you can know that this is always true. The mechanisms, parts, and technologies change but the process is always the same. You see, inside of every modern automotive key is a computer chip and this chip communicates with the vehicle and in order for the vehicle to start the computer chip and the vehicle have to “know each other”. Now, the role you play in this process is much like a dating service “Think Tinder” you have to introduce the vehicle and computer chip in the key and get them to start talking with the help of a key programming procedure or machine!

2 Primary ways to accomplish “Key Programming”

The first way is On-Board Key Programming, this process does not require any extra equipment and you can typically find the instructions in the vehicles owner’s manual (yep, the book in the glove compartment) but for ease of use, here are all the instructions.

On-Board Key Programming Guide

On-Board Key Programming is exactly what it sounds like! The Key(s) and the vehicle must be present and following procedure (listed below) you can program a new key to a vehicle. Now, this is not a perfect system (has limitations) and is VERY vehicle specific so you will want to check the make, model, and year but if the vehicle is equipped with On-Board Programming, then it can be done! Be prepared though, the procedure is usually a bit awkward, and it might feel like you are being pranked, my guess is the engineers who made these procedures up had a sense of humor!

Now, before we get into the details, I want to tell you a secrete (shhh). If a vehicle is equipped with On-Board Key Programming, then it will list the procedure in the owner’s manual! You can go look; I’ll be here when you get back! Quick side note: You will also find On-Board Remote Programming in the owner’s manual as well.
Looking in the owner’s manual is great but as a Locksmith that does not really work out too well. You need to be able to figure this out BEFORE you are at the vehicle to be prepared and make the best use of your time! So, I have 2 easy ways for you to get this information fast.

On our Transponder Key Product Pages, we list out the On-Board Programming method which we refer to OBP Program. Each OBP Program method is assigned an Alphabetic Letter like “A” and below you we have listed the procedure.

In the Ilco Automotive Key Blank Guide you can look up the vehicle Year, Make, Model and in the “Transponder Required” column it will list the OBP Procedure.

The second way is what you would expect, using a key programming machine. A machine you connect to the OBD2 Port (or Start Connector for CDJ).

Let’s go over the Good, Better, and Best Key Programming machines on the market today. 


BEST

Smart Pro by Advanced Diagnostics

Advanced Diagnostics has been the leader in the Key Programming Industry from the start. Their latest programmer, the Smart Pro is by far the most user friendly and has the widest range of coverage.

Pros

  • User Interface is very easy to use and information rich
  • Has a mobile app you can look up vehicles and learn about them before you get to the job without having to turn on your Smart Pro
  • Phone Tech Support, this is nice to have when you find yourself needing some help!
  • Wide range of vehicle coverage, if you are looking for 1 machine to do the everything well.. that does not exist, but the Smart Pro is the closest to it.
  • Always developing new software, having a Key Programming Machine that does not get new updates as the Manufactures come out with new technologies will eventually turn your machine into a paper weight. Advanced Diagnostics has continually, over the past almost 2 decades provided up to date programming software for the majority of vehicles.

Cons

  • Cost, if you are not programming many keys per month or just starting out the cost of the Smart Pro pricing way be a little overwhelming. Advanced Diagnostics has tried to offer a variety of plans including Tokens (pay per use) and UTP Plans (annual subscriptions) but they are still the most expensive on the market today.
  • Although the Smart Pro has a wide range of vehicle coverage, it lacks coverage in Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen-Audi, and BMW. To be fair they’ve been working on it but if you primarily want to program those vehicles then the Smart Pro is not the machine you want.

    BETTER

    AutoProPad G2 Turbo

    The AutoProPad is essentially a rebrand of an Xtool machine with an exclusive user interface.

    Pros

    • The pricing is very attractive, it’s obvious the AutoProPad crew found a pricing niche in the Key Programming Market which makes the AutoProPad a great machine to get started with if you have low volume.
    • Wide range of vehicle coverage, for the cost you will not find another machine with the vast range of coverage.
    • Phone Tech Support, this is nice to have when you find yourself needing some help!
    • The new G2 user interface allows much easier navigation with a really fun “retro” color theme.

    Cons

    • It can be confusing to tell if the AutoProPad can program a certain vehicle, it’s been betting better but not where you would expect it to be when you first get your machine.

      GOOD

      Autek IKEY820

      The Autek IKEY820 is a very simple easy to use programming machine.

      Pros

      • The IKEY820 is a very low cost machine, making it affordable for those on a strict budget
      • The menu is very simple, so it makes navigating very easy.
      • Programming is quick, somehow the IKEY820 has simplified the key programming process.

      Cons

      • Very limited on the vehicles it can program, here is the list.
      • A few updates are available but if you are trying to keep current on key programming the Autek IKEY820 is not for you.
      • No Phone Tech Support. They have a Facebook group for support.


      So there you have it, the Good, Better, and Best of key programming. Feel free to reach out to us for a deeper look into what key programmer is best for you.