Nfld. & Labrador

Fob interrupted: Why you may have trouble locking your car in downtown St. John's

In the words of DJ Khaled: major key alert!

It's called radio frequency interference and it's jamming my remote

Suzanne Bloodworth and Darrell Steele investigated the interference. They say Wi-Fi hotspots, radio antennas and other technologies could be causing it. (Bailey White/CBC)

It happened three times before I realized something was amiss.

Three times, over several months, I'd parked in roughly the same spot in St. John's and three times the key fob failed to lock the vehicle. 

Here are the known quantities: the vehicle is a 2010 Chevrolet Equinox with a factory key fob that doesn't work in the parking lots on the corner of Harbour Drive and Bishop's Cove. 

It also fails on New Gower Street, just a couple blocks away. It doesn't work at any time of day, at any distance from the vehicle, and the time of year seems to have no impact. 

An artist's rendering of the geographical areas in which the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox's fob failed. Note: the Equinoxes in this graphic are not to scale. (Google Maps)

A quick internet search will return plenty of results about similar phenomena and their explanations. Perhaps most notably, a grocery store parking lot in Alberta where everyone's keyless entry systems stopped working.

The invisible force behind it all: radio frequency interference.

It's a wonderful wireless world

"When you hit the button on your key, it sends a signal to your car. Your car has to be able to hear it," explained Suzanne Bloodworth, who works with HiTech Communications, a dealer of two-way radios and similar devices.

"Interference from the outside sources stops your car from being able to hear that signal."

Bloodworth and her colleague, Darrell Steele, joined me in a Harbour Drive parking lot, armed with a machine that can detect the frequency at which any given wireless device is operating. 

The offending fob: this factory issue remote probably needs its batteries replaced. (Bailey White/CBC)

My key fob, and most fobs made by North American manufacturers, operate at around 315 MHz.

There had to be something else in the area operating at that frequency, drowning out my little remote. 

Steele knew from his own experience that Adelaide and George, the intersection where taxis line up, was a particularly problematic area. Not surprising, since it's in between my two known trouble zones: Harbour Drive and New Gower Street. 

The curious case of the failing fobs is old news to cab driver Chris Pittman. He says the corner of Adelaide and George is a problem zone. (Bailey White/CBC)

We made our way toward the cab stand, where driver Chris Pittman told us he was well aware of the problem. 

"My car key won't lock the door," I began to tell him.

"That's right," he replied, "it doesn't work down there."

"Why not?"

"I don't know. It doesn't though. Some cars do, but some don't."

Radio technician Darrell Steele examines an electricity meter on Adelaide Street in downtown St. John's. (Bailey White/CBC)

As Pittman and I chatted, Steele scanned for potential interferers. Was it the cabbies' radios? The antenna atop Grab-N-Go Pizza? The Newfoundland Power electricity meter? He held up the machine and read the results.

Hey! You! Get off of my frequency!

"We're getting more of an influx here," Bloodworth said, interpreting information from the frequency reader, "these new boxes that Newfoundland Power has are wireless."

Steele said the meter probably wasn't the only offender. There are so many signals bouncing around downtown. Traffic in the harbour. Wi-Fi hotspots. Security cameras. Even sliding doors. 

"It's a mix of a pile of different frequencies, it's just not one," Steele said.

I could stand here all day, hitting the lock button over and over again. It'll never work. (Bailey White/CBC)

"Everything causes [radio frequency] interference, believe it or not. Everything." 

Consider the so-called internet of things: Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerators, slow cookers, coffee makers, fitness trackers, pet fitness trackers, sex toys, and — for some reason — flip flops.

That's a lot of wireless connectivity. As more devices come online, will there be more interference?

"I wouldn't say it's going to get much better," Steele said. 

The experts left me with two pieces of advice: I should change the battery in my key fob, which is about 9 years old. 

Or keep it simple, suggested Bloodworth: "don't park down there."

Read more stories from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Bailey White

CBC News

Bailey White is a senior producer in St. John's, N.L.