Future generations of drivers may never experience the feel of an engine roaring in the key when starting their car.
Automakers are moving away from traditional ignition switches and installing push button starters. The new systems are seen as more secure and convenient, but could mean the end of traditional keys.
“It’s a little weird that instead of having a set of keys, it’s a key chain,” said Michael Marchiori, 17, of Grosse Pointe Shores. “There is definitely a much better feeling when you feel the car come on. “
Push-button ignitions operate via the remote control, also known as a ‘smart key’, which allows the driver to keep the device in a pocket, purse or other location when unlocking, locking and starting the vehicle. The antennas or sensors in the car recognize and can communicate with the remote control using a unique coding.
“The days of the keys are numbered,” said Dave Sullivan, head of product analysis for automotive researcher AutoPacific. “It’s definitely a trend that we continue to see.”
Ward’s Auto, an industry observer who recently began tracking installation rates of push-button ignitions, reports that 25.4 percent, or 4.4 million, of cars and trucks in the 2013 model year sold had this feature. Installation rates are on track to increase significantly for the 2014 model year.
Push-button ignitions are standard or optional in 72 percent of 2014 cars and trucks in the United States, according to research site Edmunds.com. This compares to ten years ago, when it was only offered on five cars.
“You can see where the automakers are going,” said Jessica Caldwell, principal analyst at Edmunds, adding that the new generations of car buyers “are thriving on convenience.”
Many car manufacturers are starting to offer push-button ignitions as standard.
The most recent vehicles of the Chrysler Group – the 2015 200, the 2015 Charger and the 2015 Challenger – come standard with push-button systems. Only a dozen Chrysler models, mostly large trucks and SUVs, come with traditional metal keys.
Ford Motor Co. reports that all models except its Transit and Transit Connect vans / wagons and super-utility and commercial trucks are offered with push-button ignitions.
General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, following a 2.59 million vehicle ignition switch recall that has been linked to at least 36 deaths, told Congress last spring that GM could shut down to use turnkey ignitions: “Push button start is something that we are evaluating to put across the wallet,” she told an energy and trade subcommittee of the Bedroom.
GM spokeswoman Jennie Ecclestone said the Detroit automaker continues to assess which vehicles are best suited for keyless starting. She said GM offers keyless ignition on 20 of its 2015 models, including nine production models.
Analysts, however, say GM’s ignition switch problems are not the cause of the industry change. The availability of the feature increased before the recalls, and it’s more of a convenience than a security measure.
“Once customers get used to it, it almost becomes a requirement for the car,” said David Fischer Jr., general manager of the Suburban Collection dealer group, adding that the technology is a gateway for others like remote start and keyless entry.
Push buttons not flawless
However, push button ignitions are not without flaws. The downsides include high replacement costs for remotes, the inconvenience of remotes dying with no way to start the car – and even potentially fatal consequences when drivers don’t understand how to turn it off.
During Toyota Motor Corp.’s unintentional acceleration problems In the late 2000s, it was reported that customers did not know how to turn off Toyota and Lexus vehicles with push-button ignitions in the event of unintentional acceleration.
Following an August 2009 accident that killed four people, Toyota instructed drivers to “firmly and steadily press the button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine. DO NOT press the button. starting / stopping the engine “.
Separately, an incident involving a push-button start in a Lexus in 2009 killed Ernest Codelia Jr., 79, and caused brain damage to his partner, Mary Rivera.
Rivera parked her car in a downstairs garage attached to the couple’s New York City residence and accidentally left the engine running. The next day, Rivera was found unconscious and Codelia dead. The cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
The lawsuits against Toyota arising from that incident as well as another case were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts earlier this year, according to attorney Noah Kushlefsky, who filed the lawsuits.
“You no longer have the tactical notion of (keys to tell you), ‘I forgot to park it’ or the car is still moving,” he said. “It’s a question of human factors.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received hundreds of complaints about push-button technology, from roll-aways to vehicles that don’t start properly.
In 2011, the oversight agency proposed to standardize keyless ignition controls, requiring audible warnings for drivers not using the button properly. A final decision is expected early next year.
Many automakers have responded to their concerns themselves. Chrysler, for example, has “Safe Hold,” which activates the electronic parking brake if the driver leaves the car running and tries to exit. And the engines turn off after pressing three times or holding down the ignition button.
Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer predicts that future vehicles will use scanners that identify a driver’s fingerprints to start a car.
Editors Melissa Burden, Michael Martinez and David Shepardson contributed.