Keyless ignition system needs more safeguards
May 25 2018 12:43 AM
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Keyless ignition is one of those welcome advances in auto design that are easy to appreciate. No more fumbling for the key, no more dropping it in a gutter, no more trying to slip it into the ignition in the dark. Just open the door, get in, and punch the button. The fob never has to leave your purse or pocket.
But the convenience carries a danger that is easy to overlook. With quiet modern engines, it’s not hard to forget to shut the car off when you park it and walk away none the wiser. This is risky if the vehicle is on the street or in a parking lot. But it can be deadly in a garage.
Since 2006, an investigation by The New York Times found, 28 people have died of carbon monoxide poisoning after a keyless-ignition vehicle was mistakenly left idling in a garage attached to a house. Another 45 have been injured, some of them with brain damage. The odourless, invisible gas fills the home and the occupants are overcome, often as they sleep.
More than half of the 17mn new cars and light trucks sold each year in the US have this feature. The danger has long been apparent: In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers recommended that these vehicles give off beeps or honks to alert drivers when they get out and leave a car running – and even to shut the car off after, say, 30 minutes.
That same year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a rule to protect against this hazard, but it was not adopted. At the time, the agency said a simple software modification costing a few cents would fix the problem. In a 2015 recall, General Motors said it cost $5 to retrofit a car to automatically turn itself off. “Preventing even one serious injury over three years would make the proposed rule cost-beneficial,” NHTSA concluded.
A mortal danger that is cheap and easy to avert? It sounds like something automakers would rush to do – on new vehicles, at least, if not on old ones. And some, including Ford and GM, have designed new models to cut the engine after a given time if the fob is out of the car.
The wonder is that every carmaker hasn’t done the same thing. Maybe they’ll wake up and act in response to the Times report. They got a heads-up when Heidi King, nominated to head NHTSA, was grilled by senators about the agency’s inaction. A letter from Senator Richard Blumenthal, and Senator Edward Markey, urged that it follow through on that 2011 rule, because “this problem has not been solved by voluntary measures.”
It could be solved voluntarily – and if auto companies are smart, it will be. Aside from the prospect of a federal mandate, they also face potential legal trouble. In 2016, a judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit over such deaths, but it’s safe to bet the industry has not heard the last from plaintiffs’ attorneys. There’s also the court of public opinion: Carmakers who don’t solve this problem won’t enjoy the inevitable bad publicity.
This is a flaw in the technology that creates a grave peril. Carmakers should waste no time acting, because their customers’ lives are at stake.




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