Not too long ago, I drove a Prius for the first time. The handling and comfort were great, and the novel quietness of the car was interesting. There were a few things that just seemed a little off.

One was the gearshift on Toyota's prize-winning hybrid car, which looked to me like a strange tiny video game joystick, and seemed to have "drive" and "reverse" switched around. The other was the smart key. It goes with the driver, but it doesn’t go into the steering column, which left me puzzled.

The term "smart key" has become synonymous with the auto industry, where engineers have completely re-designed auto access and ignition to replace those physical keys that we've kept in our pockets for our entire lifetimes of driving. So what do these new smart keys do?

One User's Experience - Complete With Visuals

Take a look at this article from Tech Page One entitled "Smart Key, Pretty Dumb," and at the top you'll see a funny photo that illustrates some of the controversy around new smart key auto systems. Along with all of the tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the superpowers ascribed to these accessories, you'll see one large text line at the bottom - "what it can't do: obey!"

This is at the heart of the debate around smart key technologies - are they really as smart as we need them to be? Is the new functionality worth the headaches when we find that we just can't control these smart little gizmos the right way?

Directly under the amusing smart key infographic, you have a story, penned jointly by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton, about someone who bought a Chevrolet Volt — notice the writer says it was her first such purchase in 14 years.

Like many drivers, this surfing car customer thought that the smart key would help her to control the car better. After all, why else would they call it smart?

Anyway, if you look at the second paragraph, first impressions were good:
    "This meant that things I had done for my whole life without complaint or even an inkling that they were burdensome were now eliminated. No more tiresome inserting-key-into-ignition-and-turning, for instance. I could simply push a button to start the car if the smart key was nearby."
It's great to have push-button ignition. It's awesome to unlock your car without having to stick a key in the door.

But as in the case of this hapless and land-bound customer, the problems we have with these new technologies arise when we encounter some kind of situation that we already had a solution for under the old way of doing auto security.

In a nutshell, this woman’s problem with the smart key is that you can't take it in the ocean or in the pool, and you can't hide it near the car. It's not waterproof, and having it within a certain distance of the car will cause security problems.

Further commentary here is instructive:
    "’Hold it,’ I said (to the dealership reps) 'You have a technology that you can’t override?’ I had read enough science fiction to know that this was where things went terribly, terribly wrong."
In the end, (spoiler alert) our surfer fixes her smart key pickle with a few cents worth of Reynolds wrap. But is this the only problem that we have with smart keys?

Other Smart Key Dilemmas

Some of the other problems that people have with smart keys simply come down to cost. Like anything else that's an accessory, smart keys can get lost over time, and this creates specific problems. On this CityData forum, you can see how Ford smart keys require two existing keys to program a third key. Otherwise, drivers have to go back to the dealership and get pricey fixes. You'll see a post down toward the bottom indicating that Lexus smart keys go for over $300, at least from the dealership. This might not be an issue for the average Lexus driver, but for someone who's in any way frugal or at all cost aware, it's not a great situation.

Other problems have to do with other unanticipated security situations. For example, you have this post on Toyota Nation talking about a husband and wife team where one driver’s smart key apparently overrode the other, and the user didn't get the conventional "key is in car" error message. You'll also see users here posting about how they "probably didn't read the manual enough" when they bought the car. This is actually at the root of the smart key problem. Anything that you have to read a manual for can be a little bit of a headache.

Choosing Smart Keys - Or Not

With the above in mind, it seems like most of us will want to make a conscious choice on whether or not to get smart-key-driven vehicles based on those two big things — cost and convenience.

If money isn't an issue, you can buy all of the smart keys you want, and when you're locked out, you could call a locksmith, or get towed to the dealership. But if you want practicality that allows you to do more with the vehicle yourself, or you don't feel like reading the manual, a traditional key vehicle might be the way to go. Where a lot of us get lost is where we fall into the "newer is always better" mentality. Smart keys aren't the only auto accessories that this applies to — for instance, just look at the change in cost in headlight lamps — from about $10 for last decade’s vehicles, to around $100 for the modern and mandatory headlights of today's late-model cars.

In other words, smart keys are fine if you want them and you're ready to invest the money, the time and effort. Otherwise, you can't make car companies change their designs, but you can get a new-to-you vehicle that still features the traditional "car operating systems" that some of us still love.