Is Keyless Start Another Technology Backfire?By Karl Brauer February 17, 2011
Keyless start is the latest automotive technology to be caught in this lag between forward-thinking convenience and longstanding driver habit. For most of the automobile's history, an ignition key has been used to start and shut off a vehicle's engine. But over the past 12 years, a growing number of models have removed this connection between key and car. In fact, just since 2006 the number of models offering keyless start has grown from 40 to 163, or over half of all new cars and trucks sold in the U.S.
These models utilize a newer technology that senses the presence of a key fob and (theoretically) only allows the car to start when the fob is inside the vehicle's cabin. These systems are also supposed to alert the driver if the key is removed from the cabin while the engine is still running.
The convenience part comes from not having to remove the key fob from a purse or pocket to start the car. Instead, the driver simply presses a button located on the dash. When combined with keyless entry, this technology means a driver never has to actually hold the key to unlock, enter and start the car. It also means not dealing with the key when shutting the engine off and leaving/locking the car. As in the early days of anti-lock braking systems (ABS), there's no obvious downside to this design.
Yet recent news reports, along with data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) complaint database, suggest a growing pattern of keyless-start-related mishaps, ranging from a loss of engine power to apparent carbon monoxide poisoning. In the former case, the car's computer apparently thinks the key fob is not present (even when it is) and shuts the engine off. In the latter case, it appears drivers are forgetting to shut the engine off after parking the vehicle in their garage, even though these systems are supposed to alert drivers when the key fob is removed from the cabin while the engine is running.
There are also reports of cars rolling away because the driver shut the engine off with the car still in drive or reverse -- something that can't happen with traditional ignition key systems that require the car to be in Park before removing the key.
While technological failures play a role here (the inability of these systems to accurately sense the key fob's location is really the heart of the problem), there's also an issue with drivers not adapting to the new engine start/stop process. Whether this is force of habit or simply careless behavior doesn't lessen the tragedy of the results.
Most drivers have spent years inserting a key into the dash or steering column and turning it to start the engine, then subsequently removing the key to shut the engine off. Keyless start completely does away with this familiar process. Combine that with the smooth and quiet operation of modern engines and, not surprisingly, people are walking away from their vehicles with the engine still running. While the resulting tragedies can't be directly tied to design flaws or vehicle defects, they are yet another indicator of the unforeseen consequences that often accompany technological "advancement."
With multiple lawsuits pending between consumers and automakers, it will likely take years to unravel who is at fault. In the meantime you can bet automakers will be re-evaluating keyless start and driver behavior to quell this latest technological backfire.
Time, Technology March On
This is evident in the televisions we watch, the computers we use, the phones we carry and, the cars we drive. With automobiles now capable of sensing sleepy drivers, limiting the top speed of teenagers and calling an ambulance after a serious crash it would seem there's no downside to technological upgrades.
Yet mixed in with these obvious advancements in personal safety are ongoing stories of, for lack of a better term, technological backfires. The case of ABS, which entered the automotive marketplace more than 20 years ago, is a good example. Although the conceptual advantages of ABS seemed crystal clear at the time, the reality was much murkier.
Rather than benefiting from shorter stopping distances and increased vehicle control under hard braking, cars with anti-lock brakes had the same overall accident rate as non-ABS-equipped vehicles. After some digging by safety regulators, the answer was obvious -- many drivers weren't benefiting from anti-lock brakes because they didn't know how to properly use them. Decades of training had taught drivers to pump the brake pedal and keep the steering wheel straight during emergency braking. But to benefit from ABS, drivers needed to do exactly the opposite -- press hard on the brake pedal and hold it down while continuing to steer around obstacles.
Eventually driver training caught up with technology, and ABS started delivering on its promise of lowering injuries and fatalities. But that process of updating driver habit took years, and when one considers the rate at which new technologies are introduced to the automotive marketplace, it's not surprising to see these technological backfires occurring at an increasing rate.