Key Fobs and Garage-Door Openers on the Blink? It Happened to an Entire Cleveland Suburb

Andrew Wendler
Photo credit: Kiyoshi Hijiki - Getty Images

From Car and Driver

  • Residents of North Olmsted, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, reported intermittent outages of their remote key fobs and garage door openers.
  • Police, local utilities, and a television repairman converged on the neighborhood in search of answers.
  • Conspiracy theorists were quick to namecheck the nearby NASA Glenn Research Center or recent technical problems at Cleveland Hopkins Airport as possible sources of the disruption, but the solution was more prosaic.

As life tragedies go, the sporadic failure of a remote device like a garage door opener or automotive key fob is pretty insignificant. But when fresh batteries fail to remedy the situation and you discover many of your neighbors are suffering from the same affliction, things can get weird. The situation first came to our attention last week by way of Cleveland.com, at which point no resolution had been found. Just in time to quell the conspiracy theorists-saving us from a scenario that had all the makings of an entry in the year's most entertaining viral news clips-the New York Times went and ruined the fun by weighing in with some well-researched facts.

Photo credit: Getty Images - Getty Images

TV Repairman Solves the Mystery

The problem was even more infuriating because it was erratic: the key fobs for some brands seemed immune to the effect, while others came up dead consistently. One victim found it affected his GMC but not his Nissan, leading him to believe it was a domestic-vs.-import situation, at least in terms of the affected vehicles. That amateur theory did not lead to a reveal of the cause. After utility and law-enforcement officials failed to figure it out, a TV repairman armed with some testing equipment discovered a single house was emitting a particularly strong signal. Apparently, the resident, an electronics enthusiast, had devised a wireless warning system of sorts to alert him while he was working in his basement if someone was upstairs in his home. The problem was that his signal was transmitting a 315-megahertz radio signal, one of the frequencies earmarked for, you guessed it, remote key fobs, garage door openers, and tire-pressure monitoring systems, among other short-range applications.

While 315 MHz is a common frequency here in the United States, there are others. Europe prefers 430 MHz, which also a favorite for remote temperature sensing. Both, along with many other frequencies, fall under the Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) band, an international standard reserved for non-telecommunications purposes without licensing. (Find this fascinating? Additional information on the frequencies and bands employed in the rapidly proliferating world of short-range wireless technology can be found here.)

Photo credit: Getty Images - Car and Driver

Are We Vulnerable to Hackers?

This brings up some rather disturbing implications. Among them: Look how easily a well-intentioned hobbyist unwittingly interfered with the daily lives of those around him without trying. You don't need to be Philip K. Dick or J.G. Ballard to conjure up an evil character who demonstrates just how fallible technology is by, uh, temporarily disabling the nation's garage doors and forcing a percentage of drivers to use their car's safety key. Okay, so when you put it down on paper it doesn't sound that threatening. The point is, the more we rely on technology, the more windows are opened for the nefarious types to interfere with our existence. Thankfully, as long as there are TV repairmen, our garage doors will be safe.


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