How Remote Car Starters Work

Man starting his car remotely with key fob
William King/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Some newer vehicles roll right off the factory line with remote car starter functionality, and the benefits of this feature are easy to work out. By warming up the engine before you ever get in the car, you ensure that the oxygen sensor is all heated up and the emission controls are working at peak efficiency from the moment you back out of your driveway. And aside from that, you can also slide into a pre-warmed passenger compartment on those cold winter mornings, and enjoy a burst of cold air before setting out on a long summer commute through stop and go traffic.

While OEM remote car starters are relatively new, these devices have been available through the aftermarket for a long time. Often paired with car alarms, keyless entry systems, and other similar devices, they are also available as standalone units.

How Do Remote Starters Work?

Remote car starters are devices that allow a vehicle to be started up without requiring either the driver or the key to being physically present. This is accomplished through a component that is connected to the ignition system and fitted with a radio receiver. When that component receives a signal from a paired transmitter, which typically takes the form of a key fob, it activates the starter motor.

Since a remote car starter just simulates the same action that takes place when you turn the ignition key, these systems have a few limitations. One is that they typically don’t work very well with carbureted vehicles. Special carburetor kits are available for some remote starters, but these kits usually won’t do the trick for particularly temperamental vehicles that require a lot of fiddling with the gas or choke.

If a vehicle requires manual intervention, such as a tap of the gas pedal to drop off high idle, that can also cause issues.

Newer vehicles that ship from the factory with built-in anti-theft measures can also cause issues. These vehicles typically require some type of bypass component in order for the remote starter to work without a key in the ignition.

See more about: Choosing a remote start kit.

Additional Remote Car Starter Features

In addition to simply starting a vehicle remotely, some remote car starters offer a variety of other features and integration with other related devices. Some common features include:

  • 2-way remotes
  • keyless entry
  • starter disconnect
  • car alarm/security integration
  • remote dome light activation
  • control via smartphone app
  • car finder
  • auxiliary remote outputs

2-Way Remote Controls For Remote Starters

Basic remote car starters use a simple transmitter/receiver setup, which allows you to start your vehicle with the press of a button. In systems that use 2-way remotes, the remote control can both send and receive information. That allows the remote to display information like the interior temperature of the vehicle, which can be invaluable if you’re waiting to go out until it warms up or cools down to a comfortable level.

The Importance of an Integrated Starter Disconnect Feature

Since a remote car starter has to be hooked into an ignition system to work, some of these devices also have the ability to shut the ignition system down. If the starter disconnect feature is activated, it will typically prevent the vehicle from being hotwired.

Some remote car starters also have even more advanced features that can be activated if a vehicle is stolen or carjacked, which typically sets the alarm off and then disconnects the starter after the vehicle is shut off.

Remotely Starting Your Car With Smartphone Apps

Remote car starters typically come with one or more remote controls that are designed to also act as key fobs, but some of these systems can also be operated via a smartphone app. These systems are often 2-way as well, which allows the smartphone to display a variety of information transmitted by the remote starter system.

Security System Integration and Auxiliary Outputs

Some car security systems have built-in remote starters, and some remote starters include auxiliary outputs that allow alarms and other devices to be hooked up later on.

When Professional Installation is Necessary

While it isn’t always necessary to pay for a professional installation, some remote car starter installations are more complicated than others. Newer vehicles that require anti-theft system bypasses, for instance, require more wiring, and older carbureted vehicles typically require additional hardware.

There are also special considerations when installing a remote starter in a car with a manual transmission. If you do want to save some money with a DIY installation, it’s vital to get your hands on the right wiring diagrams before you start, since guesswork may leave you with a costly repair bill.