The first time I started a car by pushing a button, it felt too easy and convenient – like I had somehow fallen into a tax bracket I didn’t belong. just leave my keys in my pocket, and the car will let me in and drive?”
The push-button ignition is one of those buttons that doesn’t really have to add brand new functionality compared to the thing it replaces (in this case, the ignition system that allows you to insert and turn a key). He exists purely for convenience, a job he excels at. You get in the car, hit the brake pedal and a button, and you’re ready to drive. It’s only slightly more difficult than unlocking your phone.
It’s also, for most of us anyway, the rawest power we can generate at our fingertips. Flipping a switch on a surge protector could give you access to nearly 2,000 watts. It’s not a small sum, but pressing a button to start a car gives you the power to move you, your family, your luggage and, oh yes, a machine that weighs thousands of pounds at highway speeds.
The buttons themselves are relatively standard in the automotive industry, which is surprising considering how different old regular keys can be. All of the ones I’ve seen are circular, located somewhere to the right of the steering wheel, and have lighting to indicate your car is on. There are certain safety measures – many cars protect against accidental starts by requiring simultaneous pressure on the brake pedal. Personally, it feels like the right combination of convenience and manual process – foot/hand coordination makes it feel like you’re Do something, but you don’t have the trouble of playing with a key.
When I started writing this, I was under the impression that push-button start was a relatively modern feature, but its origins date back over a century. One of the first cars with button ignition was the 1912 Cadillac Model 30that made you press a button to activate the electric starter that replaced the motor crank. Of course, that was still pretty early for “motor cars”, so the convenience factor was kind of diminished by the a few more steps (As adjustment of engine fuel/air ratio and ignition timing) you had to do. Still, it seems fair to describe the Model 30 as having push-button start. It was also keyless, not because it communicated wirelessly with a key fob like modern cars do (obviously), but because there was just… no key at all.
At some point, however, people realized that there should probably be a way to stop anyone from starting your car. There was a time when cars had keys to unlock the ignition switch, but you didn’t actually turn the car on with the key. Circa 1950s, however, many cars were equipped with the turnkey ignition system that most of us are familiar with today, supplanting the knobs and levers system. And that’s mostly how it stayed for quite a while until someone decided it was high time to bring back the knob and all the keyless convenience that came with it.
Mercedes-Benz usually get a credit for popularizing the feature with the KeylessGo system in the 1998 S-Class (I asked the company if they considered themselves the inventor of the modern push to start system, but got no response). While this car came with a somewhat standard key that you could turn to start the car, you could have the option to include a keyless system that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern car. As long as you had a special plastic card on you, you could walk to the car, get in it, and turn it on by press a button at the top of the gear lever.
For a while, push-to-start was a luxury feature. This S-Class started at $72,515, or about $130,000 in today’s money. If you remember the multitude of songs from the 2010s like 2 chains, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Little babyand Wiz Khalifa which featured lyrics flexing about cars that don’t have keys or started with a button, which is why. (Khalifa refers to his push-button ignition in of them songs).
While the feature isn’t quite as exotic here in 2022, it’s still not ubiquitous; looking at the 2022 models of the top 10 selling cars in the US, only half of them come with the feature as standard. If you buy the lowest-end model of the Toyota RAV4, Camry, or Tacoma, a Honda CR-V, or a Ford F-150, you’ll get a traditional adjustable wrench to start it. (The base F-150’s exclusion of push-start isn’t necessarily a surprise considering the truck isn’t even equipped with cruise control—yes, I’m serious.) However, at the time where you moved two or three trims, all vehicles ditch the ignition cylinder for a button.
When I got my first car with push button start in 2020 I found it quite confusing for the first few months (probably because I had only ever driven decades old cars at that time ). I was pressing the button a split second before the brake, causing my car to get annoying beeps and the message “To start, press the brake”. I grew to love it, though, and now it feels downright archaic that I have to take the key out of my pocket and turn it in the ignition every time I drive another car. I’ll admit, though, that for a month or two I definitely tried to get out of the car (a 2016 Ford Fusion Energi) without turning it off completely, prompting it to yell at me again.
This poses a problem, however: as with many conveniences, push-button starts come at a cost. Several dozen people were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning or uncontrolled moving vehicles after leaving their car running, assuming they would turn off after driving out with the key fob in tow. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has even has a page warn people to be very aware if their car has a keyless ignition system. These deaths show that when a machine becomes easy enough to operate without thinking about it, people don’t think about it – and automakers have failed to factor in the deadly repercussions of this. In 2021, several senators offers laws this would require features to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and rollaways, but so far, the acts were not adopted.
Many manufacturers have begun to offer systems to prevent further deaths. But the days of the push button to start can already be numbered, thanks to companies pushing the boundaries of convenience even further. Many luxury electric vehicles, notably Teslas, forego a manual start process altogether. You get in, select your drive mode, and the car is ready to take you.
While many EVs from more traditional automakers like Ford, Hyundai, and Toyota have push-button start, there are signs that button-less starting might already be taking hold; Volvo XC40 Refill turns on automatically and stopped, and although the Volkswagen ID 4 has a start/stop button, its use is completely optional according to the car’s manual. It’s more or less the same technology; the cars authenticate you via a key fob, card or even your smartphone, but they just turn the motors on or off when you use the gear selector, rather than making it a separate step.
Like I said before, I’m a bit of a ceremonial fan, so I think it would be a shame if the push to start was completely replaced. Fortunately, if this is the future, it could take a while, given how slowly pimples have spread since their resurgence. Until then, the button will continue to act as a small luxury, giving those lucky enough to have one less thing to fumble with while getting in the car for their morning commute.
Correction on May 31, 7:02 p.m. ET: the original version of this article incorrectly referred to carbon monoxide as CO2. Its actual chemical formula is CO. We regret the error.