GM Switch Recall May Spell Demise of Ignition Keys

New Haven Register

May 6, 2014

The furor over General Motors' (GM) ignition switch has the potential to doom the car key, a technology drivers have been using for 65 years.

Testifying before Congress last month, GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra said the recall of 2.59 million affected cars may prompt the company to make push-button start standard in all its vehicles. The shift by the largest U.S. automaker would hasten a technological evolution that started with the hand-crank starter more than a century ago, before Chrysler introduced the keyed ignition across its lineup in 1949.

Push-button start, which showed up in Mercedes models in the late 1990s, is now an option in 72% of 2014 cars and trucks in the U.S., according to Edmunds.com. Last month, the New York auto show used a push button as its logo.

"People really see the push button as a convenience and a luxury feature," said Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com. "The ignition switch is a very fussy, electro-mechanical part that's seen as less reliable."

Drivers were complaining about key ignitions long before GM discovered switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion could slip out of the "on" position, shutting off the engine and disabling air bags.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has logged more than 18,000 complaints about key ignitions, according to a Bloomberg News analysis. They involve multiple models and carmakers and range from keys getting stuck, vehicles stalling at high speeds and even cars starting on their own.

GM's faulty key ignition is fairly typical of the problems cataloged by NHTSA over the years. The key could be inadvertently jarred by a knee, uneven road or weighed down by a heavy key chain.

The recalled Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion models don't, in fact, top the list of ignition-related complaints in the NHTSA database. That distinction goes to Ford's Focus, which garnered more than 2,000 complaints about keys getting stuck or not turning, primarily in models from 2000 to 2005.

"There was no safety risk, as this could only occur when the car was parked and the driver shut off the engine and tried to remove the key," Kelli Felker, a Ford spokeswoman, said in an email.

Automakers have recalled about 21 million vehicles for issues related to the keyed ignition switch, including more than 8.8 million from Ford, 5.5 million from GM, 3.5 million from Honda and 1.6 million from Chrysler and its predecessors.

"The biggest weakness for the key has always been that it was a rotating device, if you weigh it down, you can wear it out," said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst, who acknowledges replacing an ignition switch in a 1980s GM model after loading down his key ring with about 25 keys.

Push-button start has few moving parts and simply sends an electronic signal to the engine. The button works only if the driver brings a small remote unit, such as a keyless fob that also locks and unlocks the doors, into the vehicle.

The push-button system may be a boon as Americans age because it doesn't strain the wrist like turning a key, said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with auto researcher Kelley Blue Book, who said that was a frequent complaint among disabled drivers he's interviewed about making cars easier to drive.

Not that push-button start is trouble-free.

In 2009, a police officer couldn't shut off a button-start Lexus ES 350 after a floor mat got wedged in a pedal. He and three others died. That model required the driver to hold the start button down for as long as three seconds to stop the car.

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