Touching a button to unlock and start the car seems like magic. But there can be serious safety problems when a computer is running your car, not you!
After Mercedes-Benz introduced keyless ignition in its 1999 S Class models in Germany, other carmakers soon followed suit and, in 2002, Cadillac introduced the first keyless ignition system to U.S. car buyers. The number of automobiles with keyless ignition systems has quadrupled in the last five years, and today more than half of new cars manufactured come with keyless ignition systems as standard or optional features.
With catchy labels like Smart Key, Keyless Go, Smart Access, Comfort Access, and KESSY (a Volkswagen acronym for “keyless entry and keyless start”), remote start is not confined to luxury models; household names like Buick, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and more have embraced this hot new technology.
Why? What could be more convenient than a simple key fob that, while still in your pocket or purse, unlocks your car door and enables a dashboard button that starts the engine? Fans include cell phone users who don’t have to interrupt a call to search for keys or struggle with a lock; people with disabilities such as arthritis, for whom the old-fashioned key-in-ignition squeeze start was difficult and painful; and even women with long fingernails who know that starting the car won’t ruin their manicure!
What’s more, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at an Internet automobile research site, keyless ignition “has that cool factor.”
In the last year or two, however, keyless ignition systems appear to be the triggers for accidents that have resulted in injuries and death. Reports are surfacing of terrifying incidents of carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway cars, and sudden acceleration – all associated with keyless ignition systems.
Carbon monoxide poisoning has been the number one killer:
- In 2012, a Boca Raton, Florida couple was found dead in their bedroom after carbon monoxide had seeped into their home, the result of an engine left running in an attached garage. Their Mercedes, with its Keyless Go system, had not been turned off.
- In Rockville, Maryland, an 81-year-old former school superintendent died from carbon monoxide fumes in a similar accident. He had remembered to take his key fob into the house, but he forgot to turn off the car.
- One elderly woman died and another landed in a hospital hyperbaric chamber when they left their car running in their Miami Lakes garage.
- A Long Island woman with keyless ignition escaped with her life after leaving her car running in the garage, but her husband died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide poisoning in a similar incident caused permanent brain damage to another New York woman and killed her companion.
In other life-threatening incidents, keyless ignition cars turned off but not put in park have simply rolled away – in one case, running over a driver who had already exited.
Federal Manufacturer Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) mandate that a vehicle’s key cannot be removed unless the engine is off and the car’s automatic transmission is in park. Tragically, these protections are not built into automobiles with keyless ignition systems. While some automakers have built in warnings when the engine is off but the car is not in park, they have not always proved effective.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has received numerous complaints from people with keyless ignition technology, reports that the driver of a 2006 Audi was knocked down by his car after he had gotten out. The car then caught hold of his foot and dragged him over a curb.
- According to a Los Angeles Times article, car owners have parked their cars and left, not knowing that their engines remained running for hours and, in some cases, rolled away.
Yet another safety threat is sudden acceleration that can increase speed to dangerous rates and send cars spiraling out of control.
- A California Highway Patrol Officer and his family were killed when a loaner car from an auto dealer, equipped with keyless ignition, accelerated to 120 miles per hour and crashed into an embankment.
- In another incident, a Southern California executive was driving on Interstate 5 when his car sped out of control and he was powerless to stop it. After five miles of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” he managed to stop, learning later that the car’s power button has to be pressed for a full three seconds to go into emergency shutoff mode.
Of course, not all cases of sudden acceleration can be blamed on keyless ignition technology. In perhaps the most notable of recent cases, Toyota recalled millions of its vehicles for issues of possible floor mat entrapment and potentially sticking accelerators related to unintended acceleration.
Consumer Reports, an independent product testing organization, has identified five critical fixes that car manufacturers should make to reduce unintended acceleration, whether they are equipped with keyed or keyless ignition:
- Engineer cars so a sustained braking force can stop the car within a reasonable distance, even when the accelerator is fully depressed.
- Require a minimum distance between the gas pedal and the floorboard.
- Make it easier and simpler to turn off the engine in case of an emergency.
- Mandate sufficient brake pedal pressure before a vehicle can be shifted out of park.
- Simplify shifting into neutral because hitting the brakes and shifting into neutral is the best strategy for stopping a car that is speeding out of control.
The NHTSA has proposed regulations to reduce the risks associated with keyless ignition systems. Proposed FMVSS 114, as published in The Federal Register, outlines protections to cover theft, rollaway, and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Here is a summary of proposed regulations:
FMVSS No. 114, Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention, has provisions
that govern the operation of ignition systems in vehicles. This rulemaking
would address emerging safety concerns that NHTSA has identified using
consumer compliance data regarding keyless ignition controls that are not
directly addressed by this standard. The concerns are drivers who are unable
to shut down the propulsion system of their vehicle in the event of any on-road
emergency; drivers who shut off the propulsion system without putting their
vehicle in park and walk away from the vehicle, leaving it prone to roll away;
and drivers who do put their vehicle in park, but inadvertently leave the
propulsion system active increasing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in
a closed environment.
We anticipate that these new requirements would have little or no
anticipated cost, as they are based on a new Society of Automotive Engineers
Recommended Practice J2948-20110. We believe that manufacturers
already intend to follow that Practice voluntarily. The benefits for these new
provisions would be reduced consumer confusion with these new controls and
reduced potential risk of death or injury. However, because these systems
are not widespread in current vehicles, their benefits cannot yet be readily
A research scientist with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), David Kidd, argues in a March 5, 2012 letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland that the proposed FMVSS standards do not go far enough. IIHS calls for standardizing the shutdown procedures for keyless ignition systems so that drivers can easily stop in an emergency, and standardizing startup procedures so that the process in all vehicles is the same. In addition, IIHS supports audible alerts that would alert drivers to conditions that lead to rollaways and potential carbon monoxide poisoning.
Federal regulations will help, but much of the blame for the carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaways, and sudden acceleration associated with keyless ignition systems falls on drivers themselves, who in many instances have admitted that they never read the car’s operating manual and/or they forgot to turn the engine off.
Old-fashioned keyed ignition systems all work the same way, and millions of American drivers can work them without giving a thought to the process. They put their car key in the lock, unlock the door, put the key into the ignition and start the car. With automatic transmission, the car moves forward in drive, backwards in reverse, and is stationary in neutral or park. The engine won’t turn off without putting the car in park, and this is a deeply engrained habit.
Enter keyless ignition systems, which are all over the map in how they operate. Many car owners have never read their manual and have no idea how to operate their own vehicle in an emergency – much less a rental or borrowed car. Henry Jasny, general counsel at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, says, “Where you have a second to make an emergency maneuver, you shouldn’t have to search around for the right procedure to use on a switch.”
If you drive a car with a keyless ignition system, here are some things you can do to minimize the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaways, and sudden acceleration.
- When you buy or rent a keyless vehicle, ask the salesperson or rental agent to demonstrate how to lock and unlock the car and how to start and stop it. Ask questions if this is not absolutely clear. Take a test drive to make sure you can put what you have learned into practice every single day.
- Take the operating manual inside, settle into an easy chair, and read it, along with any other written instructions that come with the car. Then go to the automaker’s website, pull up the information about your make and model, and review the process for its operating keyless ignition system. Pay particular attention to details: For example, how long do you have to hold down the ignition button to start? To stop?
- Make yourself a checklist, tape it to the dashboard, and keep it in the car for at least the first few weeks you are driving. Your checklist should guide you through the entire process, from approaching the car to unlock it, to pushing the ignition button, to putting it in gear, to putting it in park and shutting off the engine.
- Know exactly how to stop your make and model in an emergency such as sudden unintended acceleration. Some cars have smart throttle, or brake override, technology to facilitate stopping within a reasonable distance. Simply put, brake override allows the brakes to take precedence over the throttle or accelerator if both brakes and throttle are activated at once.
- Just to make sure you and your family will never be at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, tape a note to yourself to the door that leads from your garage to inside the house: “DID YOU TURN THE ENGINE OFF?”