General Motors Quietly Installs Keyless Engine Shutoff

In 2011, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was considering countermeasures to the carbon monoxide hazard introduced by keyless ignition systems, it flat out rejected the idea of an automatic engine shut-off.  The agency argued that there was no good way to come up with a rule that would include a set time for the engine to shut itself off if the driver exited with the fob and inadvertently left the engine running.

“There are scenarios, such as leaving pets in the vehicle with the air conditioning or heating system on while the driver shops or is at a restaurant, where an automatic shut off of the propulsion system would have adverse results. It is our understanding that some drivers may stay in their vehicles for hours, for example, to sleep, with the air conditioning or heating system on. For the pet owner or the person staying in the vehicle for an extended period, it would be inconvenient if the propulsion system had to be restarted every 15 minutes or so,” the agency wrote in the NPRM.

Of course, the agency could have come up with a performance standard in which an idling vehicle in an enclosed space could only generate so many ppm of CO – whatever could lead to dangerous levels seeping into an adjoining structure – or some variant. But never mind – that’s not the news here. By Jove, now two major automakers have figured it out, over-heated puppies and car-nappers notwithstanding. And one of them – General Motors – kept this information from its customers for four years!

Both Ford and GM first implemented automatic engine shut down features in some of their MY 2013 vehicles.

According to owner’s manuals, Ford’s Automatic Engine Shutdown system automatically “shuts down the engine if it has been idling for an extended period. The ignition also turns off in order to save battery power. Before the engine shuts down, a message appears in the information display showing a timer counting down from 30 seconds. If you do not intervene within 30 seconds, the engine shuts down. Another message appears in the information display to inform you that the engine has shut down in order to save fuel.”

GM’s Extended Parking feature works this way in the 2015 Chevy Tahoe:

Extended Parking It is better not to park with the vehicle running. If the vehicle is left while running, follow the proper steps to be sure the vehicle will not move and there is adequate ventilation. See Shifting Into Park 0 259 and Engine Exhaust 0 261. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) transmitter is outside the vehicle, the vehicle will turn off after one hour. If the vehicle is left in P (Park) while running and the RKE transmitter is inside, the vehicle will run for two hours. At the end of the second hour, the vehicle will turn off. The timer will reset if the vehicle is taken out of P (Park) while it is running.”

Based on GM technical service descriptions the earlier versions of Extended Parking allowed the vehicle to run in two 2.5 hour cycles, for a total run-time of five hours – if the fob was still in the vehicle while the engine was left running. The automaker eventually reduced it to two one-hour cycles in some models and two 1.5 hour cycles in others.

Ford didn’t exactly make a public relations splash when it added the automatic engine shut-off in the 2013 Ford Edge, Ford Fusion Titanium and Titanium Hybrid and the Lincoln MKZ, but at least it included a description of the safety measure in the owner’s manuals.

GM, according to service descriptions, implemented an engine shutdown feature in the 2013 Buick LaCrosse, Verano and Regal, the Chevy Cruze and Malibu and the Cadillac ATS, SRX, and XTS, without so much as a whisper to drivers. GM continued to expand the application of what it eventually branded the “Extended Parking Feature,” until all of its vehicles had it in 2017. Then, GM included a description in its owner’s manuals. 

Why the big secret?

Curiouser and Curiouser

Let’s push some timelines together.

In February 2009, Mary Rivera, a former college professor, suffered permanent brain damage when she unknowingly left her Lexus ES 350 idling in the garage beneath her home.  Her partner, Ernest Cordelia, died of CO poisoning.

(SRS began researching this issue in 2009. In August 2010 we met with the agency to express our concerns, and have submitted comments to the 2011 FMVSS 114 docket. SRS repeatedly emphasized to NHTSA that “the introduction of electronic keys in combination with push-button ignition systems has introduced new scenarios under which a driver can exit the vehicle, key fob in hand with the motor running, or with the engine off but the vehicle in a gear other than park. With today’s quiet engines, drivers can leave a vehicle, travel great distances from the vehicle with the key in their pockets while the engine is running or the transmission in neutral – all without being aware that they have done so. As we are seeing from owner complaints and litigation, the marriage of electronics with ignitions and locks have resulted in unintended consequences: carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway crashes and easy thefts allowing manufacturers an erroneous – and as far as the consumer is aware – secret definition of the key that allows drivers to mistakenly believe that when they exit the vehicle with the fob, the engine is off and the vehicle transmission locked in the Park position – is antithetical to the spirit and letter of FMVSS 114.” You can read them here.)

In early 2009, SAE formed the Keyless Ignition Subcommittee in response to safety concerns and “concern regarding the myriad different ways manufacturers are implementing keyless ignition features,” as described in NHTSA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to fix the hazards introduced by keyless ignition systems. “The committee consisted of experts in the study of how humans interact with machines (human factors experts) and designers of keyless ignition systems from auto manufacturers and suppliers,” according to the NPRM. Ford and GM each had a representative on this committee.

As we’ve said many times, the great downside to electronic key systems is the transition of the key from a physical object to an invisible electronic code – the average consumer doesn’t really understand this, and conflates the fob with the key, because you need the former to start the vehicle, and because manufacturers brand the fob with names like Smart Key, or the visual alerts in the vehicle say “Key not Detected” in reference to the fob. However, unlike a traditional key, the fob plays no role in turning off the vehicle. When a driver is standing in his kitchen with a traditional car key in his hand, it is certain that the engine is off and his vehicle transmission is in Park, because you can’t remove the key otherwise. A driver holding a key fob in his hand has no such assurances. In many models, you can turn the engine off with the transmission in any position, and in all keyless vehicles you can take the fob with you, leave the motor running, and it will not turn off, just because the key fob is out of range – contrary to what many believe. No, for that you need an engineered software solution.

In the fall of 2010, stories about carbon monoxide deaths begin to circulate in the mainstream press, first, the September 2010 death of Chastity Glisson in a keyless Lexus IS250 and in November, the New York Daily News broke the Rivera story.

In January 2011, SAE issued its recommended practice J2948 for keyless ignition controls “based on the subcommittee members' experience with their company's vehicles and systems, knowledge of consumers' comments about the operation of the systems, knowledge of human factors engineering and, in some cases, knowledge of proprietary studies done during the development of their products (actual data was not shared with the group),” according the NPRM.

SAE J2948 noted four “errors” drivers might make: the inability to start and stop the vehicle propulsion system; exiting the vehicle with the automatic transmission in a non-parking gear; exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is enabled; and exiting the vehicle while the vehicle propulsion system is disabled, but the accessory or electrical systems are active.”

The intent of the standard is stated as: “to help minimize these errors.”

In December 2011, NHTSA published its NPRM and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Ford and GM, immediately starts clutching its pearls over the very idea that NHTSA would try to make a rule to address these same conditions that the industry decided to address in early 2009.  

The Alliance proceeded to take a strip off the agency’s hide for attempting rulemaking on “anecdotal evidence,” provided by Vehicle Owner Questionnaires (VOQs) in which consumers reported rollaways or deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning when they mistakenly left their vehicles running. And the Alliance admonished NHTSA to do some human factors testing – even though it’s pretty clear that the automakers themselves didn’t do any before they installed keyless systems.

At the time there are only those two publicly known deaths – both in Toyotas. (Since then, the tally of reported carbon monoxide deaths has risen to 26 – including a couple who died in 2006 carbon monoxide deaths involving a Toyota Avalon.) Notice again that public knowledge follows industry efforts already underway that acknowledged the need to address the hazards of keyless ignitions.

In calendar 2012, both Ford and GM released MY 2013 keyless vehicles with automatic shut-off systems. Ford quietly put the information in the owner’s manuals; GM was completely silent on the issue.

Think about this timing. Given what we know about automaker’s development cycles, a Ford or GM plan to develop and implement an automatic engine cut-off feature was likely already well in the works somewhere between the time the SAE keyless ignition subcommittee convenes and the agency publishes its NPRM – yet its trade representative excoriates the agency for attempting regulations designed to prevent drivers from exiting their keyless vehicles with the fob and the engine running, by mandating what industry considers audible warnings that are too loud. Why? Because buzzers and beeps will annoy customers – a cardinal automotive design sin? Or, because at least two of their major members were quietly installing a much better solution?

And what does NHTSA know? In 2014, the agency launched a compliance evaluation of 2013-2014 keyless ignition vehicles from Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia, to test how their keyless ignition systems operate under different scenarios in which to determine if the Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention Standard had been violated. Among the population tested: two Fords and all of the GM vehicles had the engine idle shut-off feature. Specifically, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ and the 2013 Buick Verano and LaCrosse and the 2014 Ford Edge and the Buick Regal, Cadillac SRX and XTS. 

In the Information Request sent to each manufacturer, the agency asked: Describe in detail how the Subject Vehicles' engine/motor is stopped or turned off. Include in your response, how hard and long the driver must press the start/stop button, to which device the code or other electrical signal is sent (i.e., immobilizer or engine control unit ("ECU")), and which devices are turned off or deactivated by the ECU (i.e., starter, fuel pump, fuel injection system, etc.). Specify when exactly those devices are turned off or deactivated (i.e. after the engine/motor stop control is pressed to turn off the engine/motor, after the driver's door is opened, etc.)

Did Ford or General Motors include an explanation of the feature in their answers? We’ll venture a guess: No.

Why Does GM Keep It Quiet?

It is odd that GM chose not to tell customers or even dealership techs about this feature, until long after it was implemented in its vehicles.

In 2015, the public learns that GM had an engine idle shutoff feature in the 2014 Volt, as a result of a recall. GM launched campaign 15V145 to retrofit 2011-2013 Chevrolet Volts with software that would automatically shut off the engine after a set time of idling, to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. The recall states:

“If a driver exits his/her vehicle and inadvertently leaves the vehicle “on” (because the driver fails to react to the cues and warning chimes emitted by the vehicle to alert the driver that the vehicle has not been turned off), after a period of time, the vehicle’s battery will drain and the vehicle’s gas engine will begin to run. If the gas engine runs for long periods of time within an enclosed space, such as a garage, carbon monoxide could build up in the enclosed space and potentially cause injury.”

The automaker’s Part 573 submission to NHTSA noted that it had initiated an investigation in August 2014, allegedly after a single customer complaint about the build-up of carbon monoxide in a garage caused by the engine inadvertently left running. (GM told Automotive News that it was aware of two carbon monoxide injuries.)

And here’s where it gets weird. In GM’s defect chronology, which accompanies all Part 573 submissions, the automaker wrote: “it was determined that the 2014 model year and beyond Volts contain software that automatically shuts down the vehicle after being left idle in a run state for a specific amount of time.”

Now, by MY 2014, Buicks, Cadillacs and all of the Chevrolets had an automatic engine shutdown feature – a significant subset had had it since calendar 2012 (MY 2013)! Yet, GM talks about a disembodied discovery, like it had no idea that it had been systematically installing an engine shutdown system through its carlines since 2012.

Its defect chronology continues:

“GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority (SFADA) concluded that, because the investigation revealed customer error in leaving the vehicle in a run state was the primary factor contributing to the condition, and considering the warnings provided to the driver that the vehicle was left running and the low number of complaints relating to this issue, the appropriate remedy would be a customer satisfaction program to update the vehicle software to power down the vehicle if the vehicle was left running for an extended period of time.”

Super weird that they only want to do a customer satisfaction campaign because of bad, bad drivers, since, clearly, GM had long ago decided that this was a hazard, and had engineered a solution that had been implemented more than two years earlier in non-hybrid vehicles, where there isn’t even the possibility that the quiet electric powered motor will revert to the gasoline engine, if left running long enough.

According to the GM defect chronology, they only decided to move to a recall, at NHTSA’s suggestion. Did NHTSA know that GM already had a cut-off feature in so many of its models?

The next time GM publicly reveals the existence of this feature in other vehicles is to its dealers and their technicians in a series of technical service bulletins that appear to begin in 2015. Did the absence of an explanation for this feature lead to customer complaints about the engine shutting down? An examination of consumer complaints to NHTSA shows that drivers with models that employed the 2.5 to 5 hour run strategy in the earlier versions of the Extended Parking feature complained that their vehicle did not shut down. This driver of a 2014 Buick Verano was so frustrated, he filed two different complaints with NHTSA:

“This is my second complaint. My wife forgot to press the stop engine button again because of a distraction.  As a result she burned a quarter tank of gas while she was gone from the vehicle. Why is there not a safety shut off like the ten minute shut off in remote start mode? If this was in my integral garage I could be dead from carbon monoxide. Is this another shove it under the rug like the GM key scandal. Since so many vehicles are going to this technology why hasn't this been looked at? My wife is only 61 and in good health. What of the older folks with problems to do?”

The Preliminary Information technical bulletins to GM service technicians inform them that “Some customers may comment that the engine stops running after extended idle with shifter in Park.” No repair is required, the bulletin states – just educate the customer about the existence of the extended parking feature.

So, customers didn’t know, the dealership techs didn’t know, GM’s Safety and Field Action Decision Authority apparently didn’t know.

And what does NHTSA know about this? If they’ve been paying attention, they know from the TSBs that GM filed with the agency

How many other automakers have secretly added this countermeasure? 


Read The Safety Record Blog prior coverage on Keyless Ignition here