a long explanation of why we don’t do VW/Audi keys. . or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Around once a month, some poor soul will cross our threshold, VW key in hand, with a simple request: can they have a spare key made? And time after time we break their hearts and send them away with nothing but the old worn-out key they walked in with (and unsolicited advice to buy a different brand of car next time).
So why wouldn’t we, a professional locksmith company who advertises and even brags on our ability to cut keys that only the dealer allegedly can, add this service to our menu?
It’s a complicated answer but it boils down to one thing: it’s not worth it.
We can cut the keys with the same level of quality and precision as the dealer or anyone else, but programming is a vastly more complicated issue.
VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group, the parent company of the aforementioned brands and several others, including Porsche) introduced transponder keys on US models starting in 1998 (or so). While they weren’t the first to do so (Ford brought them out in 1996), they were one of the first to secure their key programming features with a 4-digit PIN code that was (more or less) unique to the vehicle.
Initially, this code was accessible by select dealership personnel (service techs, parts people, etc.) and could be retrieved by VIN. If you were a locksmith that dealt with these cars, you made friends with someone at a VW dealership and kept them happy so they’d furnish you with PINs when needed.
VAG caught onto this and made an effort to mask the PIN by only providing the dealerships with a ‘hashed’ version of it (a 7-digit PIN that changed daily and depending on which workshop retrieved it) but that was eventually cracked and could easily be converted back to a 4-digit static PIN as long as the workshop code (a sort of “dealership ID number”) and the date it was retrieved were available to calculate it.
Once again, VAG caught on and eventually eliminated the ability of dealerships to retrieve PINs at all. Their procedure for key programming (in house) required their proprietary diagnostic tool (VAS 5052) to be simultaneously plugged into the vehicle AND connected to VAG headquarters via internet. The PIN was automatically and remotely entered by VAG headquarters when prompted, and the field it would normally be displayed was masked, thus prohibiting even the technician programming the key from seeing it.
They did, under protest, make the ability to program keys available to third parties but ONLY if the VAS 5052 was purchased from them (around $6,000 at the time) and ONLY if connected to the car and internet simultaneously and ONLY if the PIN were brokered through an entirely separate division than what the dealerships used, which seemingly didn’t care to honor the agreement. I remember watching a cell phone video of a big shot automotive locksmith that serviced a number of auto auctions, sitting in the front seat of a VW Touareg on top of an auto transporter, VAS 5052 plugged into an expensive mobile router, properly cut switchblade key in the ignition, allegedly waiting for hours for someone at VAG to come to their desk and authorize the release of the (masked) PIN. As the Touareg has no mechanical steering lock or shift interlock, it was frozen in position on the transporter until a key could be programmed.
At this point, many independent locksmiths considered ourselves out of the VW key making business.
But then, gear started coming out of eastern Europe advertising the ability to retrieve the static 4 digit PIN from the car, no internet required. It seemed too good to be true. . . and in some ways, it was.
As the tools did not use ‘factory endorsed’ methods to read the PIN, documentation was laughable. . . and coverage was not 100%. Cabrio and Eurovan were specifically excluded as they used a completely different immobilizer system. The rest? It wasn’t as simple as selecting “2000 Beetle>Read PIN”. It usually meant a lot of guessing or simply trying all the options until something worked, all the while hoping you didn’t “brick” anything (wipe out the programming on a rather expensive part of the car critical for its operation). So when that 2000 Beetle showed up, you’d plug in and try Magneti Marelli (5), then maybe Magneti Marelli (6), then VDO (old), then VDO (new), and god help you if it was a TDI (fughettaboutit).
Eventually you’d probably have the PIN, and could commence with key programming, and hopefully collect your fee and send the customer along, happier now that they had a key (or more) for their formerly un-programmable “people’s car”.
. . . unless, during the attempt to read the PIN, you managed to set faults in one or more modules on the car. This could be as simple and benign as setting a check engine light for an unprogrammed key, to setting airbag and/or transmission fault codes that actually force the car into ‘limp-home’ mode and won’t allow it to shift out of 1st gear.
Yes, this happened. More than once.
Eventually the mainstream key programming machines adopted the ability to read most VW PINs, included marginally better documentation on how and where to look to retrieve said PIN, and thankfully also included the ability to clear most fault codes after the hacking session was over.
Most of them.
I have sent a few customers away with airbag lights I’ve been unable to clear. Luckily I had a friend with better gear who was always willing to clean up my mess. This cost me many beers.
Even with all of these dangers, we still offered the service. VW programming sessions could stretch into hour’s long adventures in cursing and hair pulling. Eventually we made the decision to discontinue offering duplicate keys, but would, if the situation warranted it, continue to help customers in our area who had lost all their keys and would otherwise have to tow their vehicle to the dealer and wait a few days.
Then, around 2006, the “Pre-Coded” keys showed up. VAG’s latest countermeasure to keep us grubby locksmiths from tinkering with their preciouses.
Most transponder key programming works like this: grab a key off the wall, cut it to the appropriate dimensions, program it to the car, and boom, you’re done. The transponder within the key contains a small amount of unique data used to identify it from all the other billions of chips in existence–a serial number, if you will. Programming the key consists of basically telling the car (via diagnostic tool) to add the key currently in the ignition to its list of authorized keys. Simple and secure enough, right?
VAG added a stipulation that a key would only be programmable to a car if a pre-coded value (a prefix to the aforementioned serial number) on the key matched that of the car. This prefix was 8 bytes, which may not sound like much, but it works out to 1.6 septillion possibilities (a 19 digit number–pretty big). To answer the issue of reading the pre-coded data from the car by ‘hacking’ methods, only 7 of the 8 bytes were readable via the diagnostic port. The 8th could be determined by guessing (or other more advanced methods), but with 256 possibilities, it was not a quick process. Write a value to your key, put it in the ignition, attempt programming. If unsuccessful, pull the key back out, write the next value to the key and repeat until it is.
This did, for a time, force VW/Audi owners and locksmiths hoping to support them to at least purchase the keys from VW (which could no longer be created at the dealership—now they had to be ordered from centralized security centres and shipped in). A few industrious locksmiths adopted the industry solution of precoding the keys with the 7 known bits and simply guessing until the 8th was found and the key programmed.
The PINs were still a problem, and now had increased to 5 digits.
Around this time, a more high-tech approach to the problem began to appear. Instead of dealing with PINs and precoding, many tech-savvy automotive locksmiths began sourcing equipment to read and write directly to the microchips that store key data on the car. This is a very effective way to program keys, but in my opinion, is too labor and tech-intensive to be a viable and cost-effective way to create spare keys. It’s also somewhat risky when considering it usually involves removing and disassembling the instrument cluster to access the necessary microchip(s). . . and the usual risks of ‘bricking’ an expensive and essential-for-operation dashboard still apply.
This is the current locksmith-industry-accepted method of VW/Audi key programming (in addition to the VAG approved method of using their programmer, their keys, and that pesky ‘be connected to the internet’ requirement).
It’s also where we decided to discontinue offering keys or programming for these cars. I don’t feel like it’s possible to make the investment in programming equipment (with any hope I’d ever see a return on it), keep an inventory of OEM-quality keys (there are dozens for VW/Audi, by the way), and still remain competitive with the dealer while having to perform substantially more labor than they do for the same operation.
Sorry. I don’t make the rules of the game, but I can decide when I want to quit playing if they seem unfair. . . and this is a Monopoly game where VAG has hotels on every property before the die is even rolled.
If you’re truly in need, Jeremy Arnwine with Keymax in Knoxville is a glutton for punishment and isn’t afraid of Ze Germans. Call or (preferably) text him if you need a VW/Audi key and don’t want to go to the dealer. 865-405-5359