The Center for Auto Safety is asking the federal government to stop automakers and their dealers from charging consumers hundreds or even thousands of dollars to replace keys with embedded computer codes.
The consumer group charges that car companies refuse to release the computer information that aftermarket stores or locksmiths would need to provide replacement keys at competitive prices.
The complaint with the Federal Trade Commission also claims that the theft-prevention value of the so-called smart key systems is overrated.
"The specter of auto theft does not justify auto companies picking the pockets of consumers by charging hundreds of dollars more for replacement keys than they could in a competitive market," according to the complaint.
A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said some automakers already provide the needed information to locksmiths and the industry as a whole is looking for a uniform way to make key codes available without increasing the threat of vehicle theft.
The Center for Auto Safety says the typical cost of replacing a single so-called smart key is more than $150 or roughly 12 times the cost of the average mechanical key. The cost rises into the thousands of dollars if the automaker or dealership replaces a vehicle's electronic control module.
Some advanced systems are programmed so that the modules are matched to a unique set of keys. If the original keys are lost or damaged, the module also must be replaced.