Is Keyless Start Another Technology Backfire?

By Karl Brauer February 17, 2011

keyless ignition button.jpg

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.

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jmess says: 11:34 AM, 02.17.11

Never underestimate how numb some people are between the ears. If there is a way to screw something simple up the gene pool will produce somebody that can get the job done.

For those who can count backwards from ten a keyless ignition is a great convenience. We have two cars with this feature and we don't miss the key dance at all.

blueguydotcom says: 9:42 PM, 02.17.11

I had a car in 2006 with keyless ignition - it was heaven. If I order my next car, it will have it. As jmess pointed out, only the extremely dense seem to have problems with keyless ignition.

seppoboy says: 8:59 AM, 02.18.11

Count me as a critic of the keyless start technology. There are many potential points of failure for a very modest potential benefit.

Indeed, all the latest/greatest digital and electronic features are fun to use and provide enjoyment for a specific slice of the audience, the early adopters and technophiles. Most such features add confusion and possible points of failure for millions of people who have disabilities, age-related confusion, lower skills, immigrant/non-English speaking backgrounds, etc. My elderly mother can still drive herself in her simpler, conventional car, but she becomes flustered trying to adapt to any other vehicle; there are many like her, elderly or not.

Any feature that requires its users to understand the underlying technical processes in order to operate it safely needs time to become standardized.

fulcrumb says: 6:04 PM, 02.19.11

Daytime running lights are another tech backfire. I see many people driving at night with only the DRL, which do NOT illuminate the taillights on any make of vehicle. Besides being not as bright or focused as the regular headlights, this behavior is especially dangerous when they are pulling a trailer in the dark; which also will have no taillights.

blueguydotcom says: 2:49 PM, 02.21.11

Amazing how the actions of a few mean the entire technology is bad. DRLs are bad because a few fools do not turn on their lights. Hmmm. Flip that with the fact when it's raining a good 80-90% of people on the road do not turn on their lights. It's the law but as insane as it sounds most people don't bother to turn on their lights as they feel they can see fine (not recognizing the lights are to benefit other drivers).

Old people can't figure out keyless start? That's a sign they shouldn't be driving. If a brain cannot comprehend a new thing that simple then there's danger afoot for everybody. My mother-in-law has backed into more than 1 car with her Prius - it has a damned rearview camera. Is the technology the fault or her poor skills?

ocramidajzj says: 7:08 AM, 02.22.11

Both our Mazda's have keyless and it's wonderful. Sure it may have some bugs and require more user training to be foolproof but the advantages far outweigh the negatives IMO. Like others have said some people are just dense and pay little attention. Sadly as long as manufacturers like Toyota build uninvolvong cars that demand little thought from it's driver then people will continue to drive dumb. IMO.

martinthekraut says: 7:20 AM, 02.23.11

Keyless start is another half-thought out techno gizmo, that the auto industry created to suck more money out of our pockets: it costs little to add, but you can be charged a ton for it.
Any supporter of the new gadget ought to call their dealership and ask them what a replacement "key" costs?
I recently was at a dealer getting a replacement key which just had an immobilizer chip in (no keyless start, no remote keyless entry) and when I gasped at the $120 price, the service advisor told me, that this was cheap and that other replacement keys are more like $300: I told him, that this would be a reason for me not to buy such a car!! I can get a key for my house for $5 at the hardware store and I don't want anybody to break into that either. And then this "advancement" comes with risks, such as roll-aways..?
Wow: what an invention? Maybe we should have let some of those car companies go bankrupt. "just" had an immobilizertechno gizmo, that the auto industry created to suck more money out of our pockets: it costs little to add, but you can be charged a ton for it.
Any supporter of the new gadget ought to call their dealership and ask them what a replacement "key"

fowlean says: 5:13 PM, 05.22.11

So the problem is that the engine shuts off when the system no longer detects the key? However, the CO poisoning occurs because the engine is running without the key present? Both of these statements can't be true at the same time.

We have had this feature in our Toyota Avalon for 6 years. It may be a complicated feature from an engineering perspective, but is very simple to use as a consumer. If the car is locked, you simply pull on the door handled to unlock and open the door. If it detects the key near the car door, it will automatically unlock it as you open it. If it doesn't detect the key, it won't unlock or open. To lock the car, just push the button on the handle with the door closed and the key near the door. It beeps and you know it's locked.

For starting the car, just have the key somewhere inside the vehicle, push the brake down and push the button to start. To turn the car off, just put it in park and push the button. If the key is removed from the car while it is running, the car beeps and flashes a key not found light to let you know. You can still drive the car, but you will not be able to start it again once you turn it off.

The only issue we have had with this feature in all the years we had it is when the battery in the remote died. Without the battery, it can't radiate the signal to the car. You have to remove the hidden key from the fob and manually unlock the door. Then you hold the key up to the button while you press it. It is able to get enough ambient energy to register the signal, so you can continue to drive with that little annoyance of putting the fob next to the button when you start. Just replace the battery and you are fine.

I can see an improvement opportunity for them to add a CO detector outside the car. If the CO level gets too high and the car is in park, it should kill the engine. They could also add a feature to prevent the car from shutting off unless it is in park or neutral (sometimes you want to leave the car in neutral).

I'm sure there are differences with this feature from maker to maker, and possibly from model to model.
We have found it to be a very easy and convenient feature to have. My wife never needs to take the key out of her purse, and I can just leave the key in my pocket. It does mean you can't leave your purse in the car with the key in it though, but you probably shouldn't do that anyway. If you needed to, then you'd have to take the key with you.


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