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Automakers Won't Abandon Traditional Ignition Key, Despite GM's Recall Woes

Just the Facts:
  • Despite GM's ignition-switch and ignition-key recalls, the auto industry is not likely to make keyless, push-button start standard on all cars and trucks.
  • A keyless ignition system typically adds $75-$125 to a vehicle's cost.
  • Consumers view keyless ignition as a convenience feature to avoid the hassle of searching for a key.

DETROIT — GM's ignition-switch and ignition-key recalls are not expected to prompt other automakers to abandon the traditional key, Edmunds has found.

While many new vehicles are available with a push-button, keyless ignition system, the likelihood that feature will become standard on all future vehicles is remote at best.

Problems with ignition switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion have been linked to 13 deaths. General Motors is recalling those vehicles because the ignition switch might accidentally turn the engine off if there is too much weight on the key ring or if the key is accidently bumped.

GM on Monday recalled 3.4 million vehicles in North America to rework or replace the ignition keys. The affected vehicles include the 2006-'14 Chevrolet Impala.

However, these highly publicized problems are not expected to prompt other automakers to switch to push-button ignition systems.

Keyless ignition "is a convenience factor for shoppers," said Jeremy Acevedo, supervisor of pricing and analysis at Edmunds. "I don't necessarily know safety will be the primary motivation for automakers to rush into this."

Keyless ignition has been growing in popularity over the past 10 years. In place of a key that rotates a vehicle's ignition switch, a key fob activates a starter button located on or near the instrument panel. The driver simply pushes the button to start or shut off the engine.

In the 2004 model year, the feature was either standard or optional on five vehicles. Availability jumped to 252 out of 351 models for the 2014 model year, either as a standard or as an optional feature, according to Edmunds. That's about 72 percent of all new vehicles.

"It is going to continue on an upward trajectory," Acevedo said. "We expect that it will saturate even more of the market. It has grown quite quickly and it has trickled down to vehicles even in the lowest echelon."

The feature is popular because it eliminates the hassle of searching for the ignition key.

Toyota Division spokesman Sam Butto said the technology is "purely a convenience feature."

For the Scion, Toyota and Lexus brands combined, 23 out of 31 2014 models offer keyless ignition either as a standard or optional feature. The technology is standard on all 2014 Lexus models.

Butto added that the technology "is substantially more expensive than an ignition with a traditional key."

However, neither Toyota nor any of the automakers contacted would provide a cost estimate.

"We heard the cost is anywhere from $75 to $125 a vehicle," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis, AutoPacific Inc., a research and marketing firm. "So I really don't expect the entire industry to be 100 percent keyless in the next five to 10 years."

At Kia, the technology is standard on two models, the 2015 Kia K900 and Cadenza, and available on six other 2014 models.

Kia spokesman James Hope said convenience is the main reason buyers want keyless ignition.  But Hope said another reason is styling.

"A push-button start has a more polished, cleaner image than a key slot," he said.

GM will not reveal its future plans. GM spokesman Kevin Kelly said the automaker currently offers keyless ignition as either standard or as an option on 19 of its 2014 models. Of that number, the technology is standard on eight models.

"I think (GM CEO) Mary Barra has said we will continue to roll out the technology on additional models, but specifics as to what percentage, what kind of penetration, which models, what date, I can't get into right now," Kelly said.

Edmunds says: Ignition switches operated by the turn of a key have been the standard for decades and are not likely to disappear any time soon.

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