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Keyless ignitions or “Smart Keys” are electronic keys that frequently work in combination with push-button starters on newer vehicles. These ignition systems, now commonplace in many models, have radically changed the relationship of the driver and the car key. The plastic key fob is not the key –it’s the invisible code on a computer chip inside. The fob turns the car on, but it doesn’t necessarily turn the car off. Completely unaware of this new arrangement, consumers can and do inadvertently leave their vehicles with the engines quietly running, key fob in hand. As a result, there are two deadly problems this new “convenience” technology causes — carbon monoxide poisonings and vehicle rollaway crashes.

Carbon Monoxide Poisonings

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas that can cause brain damage and death without the victim taking notice. In the last few years, at least three people have died in Florida of carbon monoxide poisonings that occurred when the driver inadvertently left the vehicle running in an attached garage in a vehicle with a Smart Key. In one case, the driver had removed the key fob from the vehicle. The most recent fatalities occurred in March 2012, when two people were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in their West Boca home, the day they planned to leave for a trip. Authorities tied their deaths to the Mercedes with a keyless ignition system parked in their garage. There have been other deaths nationwide, but the true scope of the problem is likely to be larger than acknowledged, as authorities blame such carbon monoxide poisonings on absentmindedness, instead of recognizing how the design contributes to an error, that until recently, was impossible to make.

Traditional mechanical key systems force the driver to place the transmission in Park and turn off the engine before removing the ignition key. By design, the physical key is a reminder that the driver must perform this sequence to exit the vehicle with the key. The new push-button electronic ignition and key fob systems upend this well-established practice. Now, the electronic computer code within a fob is considered the key – not the fob itself. The fob delivers the code to the vehicle computer to allow the engine to start. The fob, however, is not necessary to turn off the engine and remove the “key.” Instead, the auto manufacturers designed a variety of sequences to remove the computer code, such as: place the transmission in park, shut off the engine, open and close the driver’s side door.

Drivers, however, are accustomed to the physical reminder of a metal key. Few realize that if they don’t follow the sequence for removing the computer code exactly, they can get out of their vehicle with the fob in their hands and still leave the engine running. And today’s driver’s have fewer cues about whether their engine is on: interior or exterior lights stay on in newer vehicles for an extended period of time even after the car is shut off; today’s engines are quieter and hard to hear over garage doors or other background noise; and the running engines of hybrid vehicles are even harder to detect because they are silent in the electric mode before activating the engine.

Here is a typical complaint from a Lexus owner in Palm Beach Gardens:

“I arrived home after dinner, drove my 2007 Lexus LS460 (equipped with keyless ignition) into my attached garage, closed the garage door and, leaving the key fob inside the vehicle, I entered my home and eventually went to sleep. I was awoken at approx. 2:15am by a carbon monoxide alarm located in the foyer inside my home adjacent to the entrance to the garage. I entered the garage to discover that the car’s engine was still running, the garage filled with noxious fumes, and the entire vehicle extremely hot to touch, inside and out. I opened the garage door and was eventually able to shut down the engine and clear out the fumes. As I see it, the failure here was two-fold: (1) when I opened my door to exit the car, no alarm or other sound alerted me that the engine was still running, as is the case with ignitions requiring keys. This is particularly problematic because the car’s engine runs in virtual silence; and (2) even after the car was unwittingly left idling while in park, the engine did not cut off after some predetermined period of time.”

Vehicle Rollaway Crashes

The new electronic ignition systems have also led to rollaway crashes because they allow a driver to exit a car, key fob in hand, with the engine off, but the vehicle in a gear other than Park. The driver assumes that the fob in his pocket means that the transmission is in Park, because the driver cannot remove a metal key unless the shift lever is locked in Park. But as complaints about rollaways to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attest, consumers have learned the hard way that they haven’t secured the vehicle properly.

Consumers have also complained to NHTSA that the fob malfunctioned, turning the vehicle on without human intervention or have reported that the fob is so sensitive that jostling it in a pocket or purse can cause the ignition to be activated unbeknownst to the driver.

The “Smart Key” Story

Electronic ignition systems began to come into vogue in the late 1990s, when the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard governing keys still applied to mechanical ignition systems with metal keys. Without considering the unintended consequences of keyless systems, NHTSA allowed automakers, under the old rule, to install electronic systems. To keep them in compliance with the regulation, federal regulators considered the car key to be the invisible electronic code within the plastic fob drivers used to start the vehicle.

In 2006, NHTSA changed the rule to make official this new definition of the key.
The new regulatory language kept keyless ignition systems in compliance with safety standards. At the same time, it interjected safety hazards because the rule did nothing to help consumers understand that the fob — which had to be used to turn the vehicle on, did not necessarily play a role in turning the vehicle off. And, without clear regulations guiding the implementation, automakers designed a variety of systems.

But, in owners’ manuals and other communications with their customers, manufacturers repeatedly referred to the fob as the “electronic key;” a “smart” key; “intelligent key” or simply, “the key.” It is no surprise that consumers continue to regard the fob – and not the invisible code – as the vehicle key. Drivers continue to lodge complaints about keyless systems with NHTSA.

Possible New Safety Standards on the Horizon?

Last December, in recognition of a spate of smart key deaths, NHTSA proposed an amendment to the safety standard governing electronic ignition systems. Federal regulators are hoping to require car manufacturers to install alarms to warn drivers exiting a keyless ignition vehicle without putting it in park or shutting down the engine. Right now, most keyless ignition vehicles do not warn the driver when the key has left the vehicle and the engine has not been properly shut down. Some have visual displays indicating that the key was no longer in the vehicle when it is being driven without the key fob in the vehicle. The typical auditory warning is no different than the chimes used to remind the driver to buckle up, or can’t be heard from outside the vehicle.

Unfortunately, NHTSA has issued its new proposal without conducting research to determine if auditory warnings will be enough. And even if a new regulation is adopted, it will do nothing to correct the millions of vehicles with their myriad systems already in use. Several generations of this dangerous “convenience” technology will go unremedied.
The old mechanical ignitions and key systems evolved through good design and government regulations which required manufacturers to build in the safeguards that kept a driver from unintentionally leaving a running vehicle. One moment of inattention, one mistake and people can pay with their lives.
Expect complaints, injuries and deaths injuries from electronic keys as the industry and regulators get around to relearning what they learned decades ago.