Not Keyed In - 2012 Toyota Prius C Long-Term Road Test
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2012 Toyota Prius C Long Term Road Test

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2012 Toyota Prius C: Not Keyed In

July 04, 2012

key not detected.jpg

You know how it goes. You get where you're going, you park, you're in a hurry, you're distracted.

That's how it went for me one morning last week, and the price of my distraction was that I left the Prius C running in our office garage. Got out of the car, locked it, walked away, turned in the key. Takahashi, the next driver, found the Prius humming away. The car was uninjured.

I'm chagrined, as you can imagine. But at least it didn't happen in the attached garage of a home. More about that in a minute.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified a problem with keyless ignition systems. Actually, there are three problems:

  • The driver doesn't know how to stop the car in a panic situation. Not all keyless ignitions turn off in the same way. The inability to stop a car with a push-button ignition in a panic situation is the most serious problem, and was a factor in the unintended acceleration accidents of a couple years ago.
  • The driver pushes the switch to shut down the engine without first putting the car in park. Cars that are on any kind of incline can roll away, possibly hurting or killing the driver or passersby.
  • The driver exits the car "with the vehicle propulsion system unintentionally left active," as NHTSA puts it. I'm that guy.

NHTSA has received four reports of near carbon-monoxide poisoning as a result of car owners leaving keyless-ignition vehicles running in garages that are attached to homes. The agency also recounts one carbon-monoxide death in Florida that is being investigated for a link to a keyless ignition issue. Other deaths also have been reported.

Here's a description of an incident sent to NHTSA by a hybrid-car owner (a plug-in vehicle, from the sound of it):

"Our garage is attached to our house with our bedroom above the garage. With three kids, my wife and I have been distracted, leaving the car in the garage to unload groceries or help with the children.

"When on electric power we have neglected to turn off the ignition since the car is silent. Only when the carbon monoxide detector sounded in our garage did we realize the engine had started while we were in the house. We think this could be deadly to other families without carbon monoxide alarms who may also forget to turn off the engine when parked in an attached garage while on electric power."

The problems with keyless ignitions are troubling enough that NHTSA is requiring carmakers to standardize their operations and warnings in several ways. To help prevent drivers from leaving a car that's still running, regulations would require an alert of no less than 85 decibels in a particular frequency range for no less than a second outside the car. (Currently, the Prius C displays the warning message you see in the photo. The interior buzzer sounds once. The exterior buzzer chirps three times.) The agency expects that these measures will be in place by the fall of 2015.

I don't blame the car for what happened to me. I acted like a new hybrid-car owner, unfamiliar with how incredibly quiet it is. I missed the warnings the Prius C offered. No question.

Cars are getting more complex all the time, and not all the features behave in the same way from car to car. Sometimes owners -- and short-term drivers -- need help to keep up.

NHTSA put it this way in its proposed rule: "The common automotive practice of the rotating ignition switch, combined with a physical key, has standardized engine shut down procedure before the advent of new electronic convenience controls. We believe standardizing the operation of these new controls, combined with the new alerts, will have the same effect."

Carroll Lachnit, Features Editor

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