After several phone calls, a recovery service takes the vehicle back to the dealer, where it sits for three or four days while new electronic keys are made and immobilisers changed, all resulting in lost revenue, time and patience for the fleet manager and driver.
Now one UK fleet services group is hoping to put an end to this problem. AutoKeys supplies replacements for lost or broken car and van keys and re-encodes key transponders on-site, enabling fleet drivers to get back on the road within two hours. It is planning major national and European expansion to create a network to cover the majority of fleets.
Currently it deals with 1,600 to 2,000 calls per month.
AutoKeys director Les Tasker explained: 'We send a van out and complete the service at the side of the road. It saves costs on recovery which normally amounts to the same as us replacing a key. It also saves on transportation of vehicles and time spent off the road.'
Fleets are normally covered by one of the large roadside assistance groups which usually arrange a new key, but by going direct to AutoKeys, they could save up to 20% on replacement key costs, the firm claims.
Tasker said: 'At the moment most fleets use the main roadside assistance services, which send us out anyway. They add about 15%-20% on top of our costs. Most jobs cost around £100-£200 per car but if fleets came direct to us, they could benefit from a discount.'
Tasker claims AutoKeys can help boost residual values on used vehicles. He said: 'Some cars only have one key, which can reduce the value of the vehicle when it comes to re-sale. By cutting another key, a spare is provided and the value of the car increases.'
The problem of lost and broken keys is a roughly equally split according to Tasker, but as winter approaches he warned fleets that vehicle locks could cause problems.
He said: 'Fleets must remember to regularly spray locks with WD40. With new cars mostly having remote central locking, it is not often that the key is used in the lock so it can remain unused for up to two years. The lock will be prone to freezing up.'
AutoKeys is able to tailor its service to individual fleet needs. After signing up, fleet managers are given an account and order number which is quoted if assistance is required. However, if preferred, the firm can deal direct with company drivers.
'For fleets, we tailor a programme so that if a driver has lost his or her keys, we either call the fleet manager before completing the job or deal directly with the driver, whichever the fleet prefers. Calling the fleet manager can sometimes be a problem if it is 4am and it requires an out of hours service.'
The way AutoKeys produces a new key, including the electrical transponder which is found inside most modern units, relies on technology provided by the group. Each locksmith is trained to use the electrical equipment AutoKeys employs to generate new key codes. At the start of each job the locksmith will access the diagnostic-testing socket either found inside the vehicle or under the bonnet.
Tasker said: 'Getting into the vehicle, either inside or under the bonnet, is achieved by many different ways according to make and model. The use of specialist picks, probes and sometimes electronics is part of the training course and not for general public knowledge. Obviously we keep the methods of entry to ourselves but our aim is to open vehicles without damage.' The electrical code and programme for the original set of keys is removed and the immobiliser code changed so that the old keys are rendered useless. A new code is then set up for the fresh set of keys.
The group's client list mainly relies on roadside assistance providers such as the AA, RAC and GreenFlag as the majority do not cover lost keys under assistance policies. Providers refer cases to AutoKeys, which then completes the service.
However, the group has several fleets on its books including fleet management and leasing giant Arval PHH and telecommunications group RTM, with plans to increase its fleet exposure further next year.
AutoKeys currently provides national coverage from Darlington to Havant in Portsmouth and from South Wales to East Anglia. It plans to open in Scotland by early February and is in negotiations with a European franchise provider with a view to branching out across Europe as early as next year.
Tasker said: 'We have 31 operators with the majority working on a 24-hour standby cover six days a week. But we will have 20 more by the end of next year. Our training school can handle two trainees per month although if they have locksmith or mechanical training, the timespan for training can be reduced.'
Drivers warned to be more 'key aware' as thefts soar
VEHICLE security specialist Tracker has called on fleets to ensure their drivers are 'key aware' after it found there had been a 50% increase in vehicles being stolen by using the owner's keys.
Research showed that 41% of vehicles fitted with the Tracker stolen vehicle recovery system had been taken in this way.
A spokesman for the Home Office issued the following advice to drivers: 'When you leave your car, always remove the ignition key and lock all doors. Do this all the time, even when filling up with petrol or popping into the shop. On icy mornings, never leave your car unattended with the engine running to warm it up or defrost the windows.
'Always keep your keys in a safe place in the house when you are not using your car, out of sight and away from windows and doors.'