The Keyless Ignition Trap

The Keyless Ignition Trap
The Keyless Ignition Trap

It seems like a common convenience in a digital age: a car that can be powered on and off with the push of a button, rather than the mechanical turning of a key. But it is a convenience that can have a deadly effect.

One commuter drove his Toyota RAV4 into the garage attached to his home and went into the house with the wireless key fob, evidently believing the car was shut off. Twenty-nine hours later, he was found dead, overcome with carbon monoxide that flooded his home while he slept. “After 75 years of driving, my father thought that when he took the key with him when he left the car, the car would be off,” said the deceased’s son.

The man is among more than two dozen people killed by carbon monoxide in the US since 2006 after a keyless-ignition vehicle was inadvertently left running in a garage. Dozens of others have been injured, some left with brain damage. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, depriving the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen. Victims are sometimes found with a cherry red rash, a symptom of carbon monoxide molecules attaching to red blood cells. Some who survive live with irreversible brain damage.

The keyless ignition was introduced as a luxury feature in Mercedes-Benz vehicles in Germany in 1998, a year after Daimler- Benz filed for a German patent, and entered the American market in 2002. Some carmakers called it the “smart key,” a wireless device sending a code to the car’s computer so the driver can start the engine with a button, instead of a mechanical key. It was meant as an additional selling point for luxury cars: no more fumbling for keys. Keyless ignitions are now standard in over half of new vehicles sold annually, rather than a physical key, drivers carry a fob that transmits a radio signal, and as long as the fob is present, a car can be started with the touch of a button.

But weaned from the habit of turning and removing a key to shut off the motor, drivers — particularly older ones — can be lulled by newer, quieter engines into mistakenly thinking that it has stopped running. Safety measures have been a matter of contention among automakers, sometimes even internally.

Toyota, for example, has a system of three audible signals outside the car, and one inside, to alert drivers getting out of a vehicle that the motor is still running. But when Toyota engineers determined that more effective warning signals were needed — like flashing lights or a unique tone — the company rejected the recommendation. Toyota says its keyless ignition system “meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards.”

At Mazda, keyless ignition is now standard, and some vehicles have an “advanced keyless entry” system that helps alert the driver to a running engine. If the driver gets out, the doors are closed and the engine is running, six repetitions of a double beep sound inside and outside the car, and a warning light activates on the instrument panel. On other Mazda vehicles in the same circumstances, the external warning sounds only if the key fob is still in the vehicle.

Some automakers have designed newer models that alert drivers more insistently when the engine is left running — or that shut it off after a certain period. Ford’s keyless vehicles now have a feature that automatically turns off the engine after 30 minutes of idling if the key fob is not in the vehicle. In the meantime, in a society increasing growing older, the hazard is likely to be compounded by demographics.