Keyless ignition linked to two dozen deaths

by Nile Bijoux, Autocar
Keyless ignition linked to two dozen deaths(117K PDF)

Walking up to your car, getting in and pushing a button instead of turning a key makes you feel like you’ve really made it, right, but there’s a problem.

A recent report by the New York Times has found more than two dozen people in the US have died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to turn off their engines, thanks to keyless systems. In total, 28 people died from the issue while 45 others suffered injuries from carbon monoxide exposure.

While it’s easy to scoff – how could one simply “forget” to turn their engine off? – the problem lies in how keyless entry and ignition work. The key fob holds a unique RFID (radio-frequency identification) transmitter, which allows the unlocking and switching on of the car without a physical action. It is easy, then, to simply get out and walk away when you’ve parked up. Combined with start-stop fuel-saving measures and petrol-electric hybrids, which switch the petrol engine off when not in use, it can be lethal.

Back in 2015, a class-action lawsuit highlighted the “defect”, following 13 deaths related to the issue. The lawsuit named Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, Toyota Motor Company, and Honda Motor Company, among others.

At the time, GM and Chevrolet recalled 64,000 Volts. The company added an idling timeout that switched the vehicle off after a certain amount of time of not being used. Prior to that, Volts sounded a two-time warning if the driver tried to exit while the vehicle was still on.

Ford, regarding the first lawsuit, said in a statement: “Ford takes the safety of our customers very seriously; the keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovative feature that has been well-received by customers. Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignitions alert the driver when the driver’s door is open and the vehicle’s engine is running.”

Ford had introduced a similar engine time-out feature in 2013. That lawsuit was dismissed a year later.

New cars feature warning tones and messages on the dash alerting drivers if a car has been left running. Safety campaigns lead by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) have run for more than seven years, asking to standardise warnings or even have the engine shut off automatically. These have been met with opposition, and U.S regulators are relying on manufacturers to add these safety measures voluntarily.

A survey by the New York Times of seventeen car companies found that while some go beyond the recommended standards, others fall short. Toyota featured in nearly half of the carbon monoxide fatalities and injuries, according to the NY Times, and it turns out when Toyota engineers determined that more effective warning signals were needed instead of the current system of three beeps sounding outside the car, the company rejected the recommendation, according to testimony in a wrongful death suit.

With no standardised alerts to address keyless vehicles accidentally left running, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that it is convinced manufacturers will meet the SAEs recommendations. However, John Uustal, a lawyer involved in two keyless ignition cases, isn’t convinced.

“You can’t trust car corporations to police themselves. There’s no adequate punishment.”