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Push-button ignition: Convenience comes with risk

The push-button ignition in the BMW M5.

BMW

Keyless entry has become so common most drivers probably can't remember the last time they used a key to unlock the car.

And increasingly, drivers don't use a key to start the vehicle, either – employing the nearby fob so they can push a button on the dash or centre console.

Some auto makers even offer smartphone apps, whose functions can include remote starting, among other things, as cars become part of the Internet of Things.

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But are we paying a price for this convenience when it comes to safety?

Push-button starters are actually nothing new. Starter buttons predominated until after the Second World War before being supplanted by all-in-one systems where a twist of the ignition key operated the starter motor.

Technology remained largely static for decades, except for features such as steering-column interlocks and microchip-embedded keys, making vehicles harder to steal. Cars with automatic transmissions also required that they be shifted into park before the key could be removed to prevent a vehicle from rolling away.

However, the past two decades have seen a rapid evolution, starting with fob-embedded radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, another security measure. A vehicle could not be started unless the fob transmitted the correct encrypted code.

The physical key itself is becoming redundant, with the handshake between driver and car becoming increasingly electronic. The RFID fob requires only close proximity when the driver pushes the starter button, and some allow for remote starting.

Canadians have embraced keyless ignition and apparently have little trouble with it, according to consumer surveys.

"We don't see a ton of commentary on our work about problems with that particular feature," says J.D. Ney, automotive research manager at J.D. Power Canada.

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But that's not to say they're problem-free. Careless use of push-button ignition systems have led to a number of deaths and injuries in the United States.

"We're aware of 25 deaths involving carbon monoxide in motor vehicles with keyless ignitions which have been left running unintentionally in an enclosed space," said Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research and Strategies Inc.

Kane, whose Massachusetts-based consulting firm investigates product safety for industry and advises on legal cases, said spotty data suggest the figure is probably conservative because reporting is incomplete. It's not clear whether there have been any Canadian deaths.

Safety watchdogs have also chronicled instances of drivers pushing the button to stop the engine without putting the car in park, allowing their vehicle to roll away. Many systems emit warnings or even shut down shortly after the driver exits the vehicle and the fob is detected leaving with them.

"The problem is if you leave the key in the cupholder and just exit the car, the car doesn't know to turn off," says former Toronto auto dealer John Raymond, now on the board of the Automobile Protection Association.

Transport Canada received several notices of defect or non-compliance related to keyless entry and ignition systems in the past decade or so.

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A search of the department's recall database shows only one – involving 2008-09 Dodge Challenger coupes equipped with optional Keyless Go – that appeared to compromise the system. Shutting off the car without the fob nearby and also not putting the transmission in park created a roll-away hazard.

Some vehicles, but not all, emit audible warnings if a driver leaves an idling car with the fob in his or her pocket – but this safety net doesn't work for anyone in the habit of leaving the fob in the cupholder after getting home.

"I would say it's still an issue," said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

Auto makers have been haphazard addressing the problem, he said. For instance, Volkswagen and Audi vehicles with keyless ignition shut down after a period of time if the car has been put in park and sensors detect the driver has left the vehicle.

Newer systems with a remote-start option require a fresh car-fob handshake and restart once the driver enters. "That eliminates the possibility that you might drive off without the key at all," Fisher said.

Kane said U.S. regulators (Canada largely piggybacks on their work) haven't addressed the problem adequately. A compliance investigation initiated after a number of incidents did not result in rule changes, he said. They're unlikely under the current U.S. administration, he said, adding lawsuits are being settled out of court.

Migrating functions to a smartphone app, either offered by the auto maker or from aftermarket providers, creates new risks, especially if there is no physical key as a backup, experts said. What if the phone's battery dies or an operating-system update renders the app unusable?

"If you're really going to rely on your smartphone to get into your car, that's a problem," Fisher said.

The best solution, Kane said, is for auto makers to replicate for keyless systems the kind of safeguards that existed when vehicles were started with a twist of the wrist.

"It's been well established that engineering out the problem rather than warning about it is the preferred method to mitigate a hazard," Kane said.

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