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A Comprehensive Guide to Automotive Locksmithing

By December 11, 2022 No Comments

Automotive locksmithing has existed for well over a century, essentially since the early stages of automobile adoption in the United States. What is an automotive locksmith and what sets them apart from other locksmiths.

This guide will seek to define automotive locksmiths as well as provide an overview of what they do, what skills they must have, and what kind of services they provide.

What is an automotive locksmith?

An automotive locksmith is a type of locksmith that specializes in the installation or repair of lock and key systems for vehicles.

We’ll go into greater detail for some of the common services that automotive locksmiths provide later in this guide, but for now consider them to be a subset of locksmiths in general as shown in the below infograph:

Locksmith specialization - infographic

There is some overlap between some of the tasks that automotive locksmiths are able to handle and those of some other disciplines of locksmithing, but this does not mean that all locksmiths are capable of providing automotive locksmithing services.

For example, automotive locksmiths need to have some understanding of electronic key and lock systems, which overlaps with what an electronics locksmith’s duties.

What really sets automotive locksmiths apart from the other disciplines of locksmithing are the following:

  • Machines (manual or computerized) that can duplicate or create original side-milled car keys;
  • Transponder programming devices;
  • Transponder key cloning devices;
  • Tools for repairing, decoding, disassembling, and decoding vehicle locks;
  • Access to reliable data such as PIN numbers, code numbers, and information on lock and key systems for vehicle makes and models.

In addition, most automotive locksmiths will have access to electric drills, key extraction tools, and many other specialized tools depending on the job at hand.

A brief history of automotive locksmithing

Once upon a time, there was virtually no distinction between a general locksmith and an automotive locksmith. Indeed, at the risk of oversimplifying, most locksmiths generally provided similar services in an age before electronic or keyless remote systems – back when everything was essentially based on physical locks and keys.

Everything began to change in the 1986 when General Motors introduced the Vehicle Anti-Theft System (VATS) on keys for the Corvette. This was done to address the high theft rate on these admittedly sexy vehicles, and indeed VATS keys were so successful that GM quickly introduced it on other models such as the Camaro and Firebird.

VATS keys use embedded resistors that send an electrical current to an onboard computer that only allows the vehicle to start if the proper key is used, making it incredibly difficult to copy these keys without the assistance of a professional locksmith.

Since the mid 80s, as vehicle manufacturers began to adopt increasingly more secure lock and key systems, automotive locksmithing became so distinct from general locksmithing that it has become its own professional industry.

What services does an automotive locksmith provide?

Automotive locksmiths provide a wide range of services revolving around installing, repairing, programming, or disassembling lock and key systems for vehicles. The most common services they provide include:

  • Emergency vehicle lockouts: one of the most common reasons for drivers to call a car locksmith is to regain access to their vehicle if they’ve lost or misplaced their keys.
  • Replacing lost or stolen keys: usually done in tandem with vehicle lockout services, car key replacement is one of the ‘bread and butter’ services provided by most automotive locksmiths. After all, what good will it do to help you get back inside your vehicle if you can’t turn on the ignition to get back on the road?
  • Ignition key repair and replacement: not only do you need keys to get into your vehicle or to pop the trunk, but you’ll also need your ignition key to work to get your vehicle started. Automotive locksmiths can help repair and replace ignition keys as well as replace ignition barrels.
  • Broken car key extraction: if your car key isn’t turning properly or has already snapped inside of the lock, a car locksmith can use specialized tools to extract the broken key pieces.
  • Laser key cutting: an automotive locksmith can laser cut traditional and side-winder keys for most vehicles that use traditional physical key and lock systems.
  • Transponder key reprogramming: your car’s transponder key communicates with the ignition to allow or deny the driver from starting the vehicle. Reprogramming a transponder key requires specific information relevant to your vehicle, such as make, model, and the vehicle identification number (VIN). A car locksmith can perform this task.

Keep in mind that some automotive locksmiths also provide ancillary services, such as general roadside assistance and towing, but these are beyond the remit of this guide.

Which skills does an automotive locksmith need to possess?

Many years ago (before the 80s), an automotive locksmith would generally just need to know how to cut and duplicate traditional car keys, repair locks, and other tasks that were fairly general to most other types of locksmith. Since then, however, the specialized discipline of auto locksmithing has evolved greatly in tandem with innovations to automotive technology and vehicle security measures.

Generally, an automotive locksmith needs to display competency in the following areas:

  • Knowing how to identify key blanks;
  • Understanding the applications of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN);
  • A working knowledge of various automotive locks (doors, trunk, ignition, etc.);
  • How to provide emergency vehicle lockout services;
  • How to work with vehicle lock cylinders;
  • How to address vehicle door problems;
  • Knowledge of American and foreign vehicle lock and key systems;
  • General working knowledge of major automotive manufacturer lock and key systems, e.g. GM, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Kia, BMW, etc.;
  • Ability to access information on more exotic vehicle manufacturer lock and key systems, especially luxury European car makes and models;
  • Working knowledge of motorcycle keys vs car keys and other types of vehicle.

Much like how modern car mechanics have increasingly gone digital in recent decades to keep up with increasingly digitized car components, automotive locksmiths have also been forced to adapt to recent changes in vehicle security and lock and key systems. This includes knowing how to resolve problems with remote keyless entry systems, keypad locks, app-based lock and key systems, and more.

In terms of physical and cognitive skills, automotive locksmiths should have numeric competency, the ability to travel long distances to provide lockout services, good customer service skills (many drivers feel vulnerable, especially at night on the side of the road, for example), the ability to use power tools and physical tools such as Slim Jims, and technical knowledge to use their highly specialized tools.

The future of the automotive locksmithing industry

So long as Americans continue to own vehicles, there will likely continue to be a great need for automotive locksmiths. This is especially true as more modern vehicles are increasingly being equipped with high-security lock systems that make it impossible to resolve problems with old-fashioned DIY methods like coat hangers or wedging open the door. Consequently, automotive locksmiths must also keep updated with all of the new trends in the automotive industry as pertains to lock and key systems and how to work with them.

Keep in mind that the most common reasons why drivers call automotive locksmiths are for emergency vehicle lockouts and to duplicate or cut original car keys (which often go hand in hand). On average, around 1.75% of Americans lose or misplace their car keys every year, so having access to a reliable and dependable car locksmith is essential.

Frequently asked questions about automotive locksmithing

Do automotive locksmiths require a license to operate?

It depends. Most states do not have any licensing requirements for automotive locksmiths, but many do. For this reason, it is important to always ensure that you are dealing with a reputable and legitimate locksmithing business that has the skills and tools needed to help resolve problems you may have with your vehicle.

How do car locksmiths open locked doors?

Generally, an automotive locksmith use a key analyzer and a mechanical code key cutter tool to create a working duplicate key, even if the original car key has been lost or misplaced. The exact methods and tools used may vary, however, depending on the make and model of vehicle.

How do police officers unlock car doors?

In the event of an emergency, police officers can gain entry to your vehicle to rescue a child or pet locked inside. Normally, they outsource this task to an automotive locksmith and will only unlock doors with very good reason. If you are not in an emergency situation, you will need to call a car locksmith yourself.

Can automotive locksmiths duplicate car keys without the original?

Yes. An automotive locksmith can create brand new car keys as well as duplicate existing keys, whether or not you have the original. They do this with specialized tools and by knowing your vehicle identification number (VIN) and the make and model of the vehicle.

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