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Is Keyless Start a silent killer? (You can be the judge.)

by David Zatz on

Analysis. Most of our readers have probably seen at least one headline linking 28 carbon monoxide-related deaths to cars with keyless ignition systems. The stories imply that keyless ignition, which lets the driver keep their keys in their pocket (or purse), is more dangerous than old-fashioned key-switches. But is this true?

starter button

The (unstated) argument for calling keyless ignition a potential killer is that the driver can leave their keys in their pocket while driving. Therefore, after they park in their garage, they’ll unlock their front door and realize they’d left their keys in the car, and go back and get them. With keyless ignition, they can walk away from their car with their keys in their pocket, and the engine still running.

Chrysler’s system is smart enough to warn people when they leave the car with the ignition on. Not surprisingly, some people apparently ignore the warnings, or simply don’t hear them, leave their car running in their garage, and later succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.  It’s not a large number of people, given the enormous number of cars with the system — just 28 people have died so far;  and keyless ignition has been around for over a decade, with half of the hundreds of thousands of cars sold in 2017 having the setup.

An FCA US LLC spokesman pointed out that their vehicles meet or exceed all applicable safety standards.

There’s a key question that has to be asked before we condemn the system — did people also leave their car running before anyone had keyless ignitions?  It turns out that, yes, people died every year from leaving their cars running, even with the old key-switches and noisy engines. The sleepiness or absent-mindedness that lets people leave their cars with the engine running works either way — perhaps at different rates.

Modern engines are quiet enough that some may not notice them running after leaving the car, even in a garage, they would also have to ignore the car’s strident warnings, and, if they tried to lock the car, a honk from the horn.  The car also displays video alerts in the cluster, and the tachometer is a giveaway.

2010 camaro ignition keys

The most vulnerable group is those who are hard of hearing or deaf, and who store their car in a garage.  Of that group, the ones more likely to be affected by keyless ignitions are the ones who lock the inner door between their garage and the house (or who go out to the front door, and leave that locked as well). Those who don’t lock the house door would be equally vulnerable with a traditional keyed lock.

viper start buttonThe obvious solution is to cut the engine power after a set period of idling, which some automakers do — and which is already done with remote starters (Chrysler, for example, has a 15-minute remote-start timer.)

So far, though, the only FCA vehicle to shut itself off automatically is the Pacifica Hybrid. It seems like a good idea for the future, and though the company did not comment on future plans, they could update all their cars (other than squads) to do the same, keyless ignition or no keyless ignition. Having a car idle its engine for more than 30 minutes seems like a fairly rare valid-case scenario.

The best advice for owners concerned about being killed by a car idling in their garage: buy a carbon monoxide detector.  After all, you may ignore the tachometer position, red lights, and bongs and buzzes, but you’re not likely to ignore the CO detector — and you’re supposed to have one anyway.

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