Keyed up With Anticipation: Smart Key Hazards Still Unresolved

Five and a half years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration vowed that it was going to get on top of the keyless ignition safety issue, publishing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The NPRM acknowledged that keyless ignitions, for all of their purported convenience, had introduced several safety hazards not associated with mechanical key systems – among them, rollaways, when drivers shut off the engine and exit without locking the shift lever in the “Park” position and carbon monoxide poisonings from drivers who inadvertently leave the engine running.

The NPRM only acknowledged two deaths – Ernest Codelia, who died in 2009, and Chastity Glisson, who died in August 2010. By December 11, 2011, when the NPRM appeared in the Federal Register, at least four individuals had also perished in keyless ignition carbon monoxide incidents. In September 2011, child protective service investigator Rebecca Hawk died in her New Tampa condo after a neighbor left his 2011 Mazda 3 running in an adjacent garage.  On Dec. 3, 2011 Harry Pitt, the former Montgomery County Maryland schools superintendent, died in his home after unintentionally leaving his Infiniti running in his attached garage and going to bed.

Since then, at least 16 more people have died in carbon monoxide poisoning incidents tied to keyless ignition. And what has NHTSA or the auto industry done about it? As far as The Safety Record can tell: Nothing.

To recap: when automakers introduced keyless ignition systems in the 1990s, engineers under-estimated the consequences of disrupting the well-established driver behaviors regarding traditional keys. Instead of the key being a physical object, it became an invisible code. The fob is necessary to turn on the vehicle, but it plays no role in turning off the vehicle. As automakers sought guidance from NHTSA regarding the compliance of these new systems with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114, the agency and industry agreed to correlate the “key” to the unique electronic code, without explaining it to driver and without fully appreciating the consequences of doing away the tactile, auditory and visual cues that helped drivers recognize when they had made a mistake.

In 2002, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s then-Chief Counsel Jacqueline Glassman alluded to the coming problems in an interpretation letter to an unnamed automaker,  Glassman affirmed that a similar system complied with FMVSS 114 – even though, “the removal of the "Smart Key" from the running vehicle would have no effect on the vehicle's operation until the engine is stopped.”

She also noted the human factors issues:

“We observe that if the ‘Smart Key’ device remained in the car. e.g. in the  pocket of a jacket laying on the seat, a person would need only turn the ignition switch knob to start the engine. It appears to us that, with systems of this kind, there would be, in the absence of some kind of a warning, a greater likelihood of drivers inadvertently leaving a ‘Smart Key’ device in the car than with a traditional key. This is because the driver must physically touch a traditional key, unlike the "Smart Key" device, as part of turning off the engine. You and/or the vehicle manufacturer may wish to consider whether there are any practicable means of reducing the possibility of drivers inadvertently leaving their ‘Smart Key’ devices in the car.”

Unfortunately, the agency did not heed its own predictions. In August 2010, Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, raised safety concerns and the probability of consumer confusion at a meeting with NHTSA officials. Kane’s presentation noted 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 has resulted in unintended consequences: carbon monoxide poisoning, rollaway crashes and easy thefts.”  

Nearly 18 months later, the agency published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would standardize engine termination procedures during panic stops (a legacy of the Toyota Unintended Acceleration crisis), and mandate loud auditory alerts to mitigate the rollaways and the carbon monoxide hazard. The issuance of a Final Rule has been pushed off at least three times. The agency’s last planned date for publishing a Final Rule was February 2016. However, the last two editions of the Unified Agenda and Regulatory Plan only note that the agency’s next actions are “to be determined,” even though NHTSA said that Final Rule itself was no biggie:

“We anticipate that these new requirements would have little or no anticipated cost as they are based on a new Society of Automotive Engineers Recommended Practice J2948-20110. We believe that manufacturers already intend to follow that Practice voluntarily. The benefits for these new provisions would be reduced consumer confusion with these new controls and reduced potential risk of death or injury. However, because these systems are not widespread in current vehicles, their benefits cannot yet be readily quantified.”

Why, there’s practically no need for anything so stodgy as a rule!

Nonetheless, in 2012, the agency was preparing to do some human factors research on its proposal to follow the J-standard, given that it took heavy criticism from industry for promulgating a rule based on consumer complaints. (The whole thing was rather rich. Industry argued that the agency had not established the need for a rule, even though industry got together to write its own – apparently unnecessary – standard. The industry scorched NHTSA for failing to do any human factors research to support its proposed countermeasures, even though it failed to produce any of its own human factors research to demonstrate that its systems worked fine as is.) NHTSA posted a Federal Register Notice seeking public comment for a proposal to contract with the John L. Volpe Center and the MIT AgeLab to conduct human factors research into keyless ignition systems. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, of course, vigorously protested this effort, and urged OMB to reject this request.

The proposal was last heard from publicly in October 2012. On June 6, The Safety Record contacted the agency with some simple questions:

What has happened to this effort to conduct human factors research in support of the FMVSS 114 NPRM?

  • Was NHTSA's request approved by OMB?
  • Has any research been conducted?
  • What entity conducted it?
  • If so, what were the results?
  • When will this research be published?

We received this response:

“NHTSA is still in rulemaking on FMVSS No. 114 (Theft protection and rollaway prevention).  NHTSA did not initiate the specific research that you are inquiring about, but is taking a hard look at these systems to determine the best way forward in improving them.” 

NHTSA did offer some helpful advice to watch their safety video  on keyless ignition systems for basic safety tips and to check their driver’s manual for detailed instructions on their specific vehicle. (A. People don’t read owner’s manuals, research shows. B. Most manufacturers’ owner’s manuals are spectacularly unclear about the operations of their keyless ignitions systems – specifically on the matter of engine shutdown.)

The Safety Record wanted to ask a follow-up, like: Why didn’t NHTSA proceed with the research? But, if our last attempt to follow up on a NHTSA action is any measure, actuarial tables indicate that we might not survive the wait for an answer. On January 28, the agency’s Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance sent information requests to Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mazda, Hyundai and Kia regarding 2012 and 2013 model-year vehicles, based on tests of how their keyless ignition systems operate under different scenarios in which to determine if the Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention Standard had been violated. The agency said that the probe was initiated by a Ford recall (13V-475), for 23,000 vehicles, which have keyless starting systems that did not have an audible warning when the driver exited the vehicle.  NHTSA inspected other vehicles with keyless systems at dealerships, for audible warnings. The agency sent out information requests, asking manufacturers about the electronic architecture of their keyless ignition systems, when the electronic code that now constitutes NHTSA’s two-part key schema is purged from the system, and the audio and visual telltales used to alert the driver that he or she has exited the vehicle. NHTSA also asked for complaint data and the safety information manufacturers provide to their customers about keyless systems. The data NHTSA collected from multiple models showed that there was absolutely no consistency in types of warnings or the decibel level of auditory warnings – even within a particular automaker’s models. Many allowed the driver to exit the vehicle with the engine off and the transmission in a gear other than PARK.  

The Safety Record Blog has been covering this issue for the last five years (Not So Smart Key Standard; The Keyless Ignition Litigation Solution; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Car; Stupid Tricks with Smart Keys; Another CO Death…What Happens When Smart Keys Collide?; NHTSA Opens Smart Key Compliance Probe.)

Naturally, we were curious to learn the conclusion of that probe. In July 2012, The Safety Record Blog submitted a Freedom of Information request seeking the documents that would help us write a follow-up on NHTSA’s investigation. As of today, we are at 711 days and counting, without any documents produced.

So, no one has done much – if any – human factors research. Not one manufacturer, nor NHTSA has produced a scintilla of empirical evidence regarding effective countermeasures to the rollaway and carbon monoxide hazard. Can drivers hear auditory alerts over the sound of a closing garage door? Are they distinguishable from other chimes? What about drivers with hearing impairment? Do drivers understand that the fob turns the vehicle on, but it does not turn the vehicle off? Do drivers even know what the frickin’ key is? Sloppy all the way around.

Automatic Shut Off

Not to worry – there’s another technology available for automakers who don’t want to annoy their customers with a loud warning buzzer, or are too lazy to do figure how best to warn a driver who doesn’t shut down the engine, or are actually interested in preventing keyless ignitions from injuring and killing their customers. It’s available right now! And nearly all automakers use a form of it: an automatic engine shut-off.

Vehicles with remote start features have software that times the idling engine, and turns it off when too much time has passed – usually after 10 or 20 minutes. Toyota, for example, offered this feature in 2005 as an accessory that could be integrated right into the existing key fob. Imagine that! At least six years before the first publicly known carbon monoxide death (Ernest Codelia, caused by a Lexus), and before Toyota began to climb the leader board for keyless ignition-related CO deaths. And check out the language in the brochure to sell the VIP Remote Starter, which promises to “take keyless ignition to the next level”:

“Sudden change of plans? Not a problem. You can remotely shut off your engine any time after you’ve activated the remote start. In fact, just to be safe, the engine will automatically shut off if you don’t put the vehicle in gear within 10 minutes of starting it.”

It’s as though Toyota anticipated that drivers might inadvertently leave their vehicles running, and that such a circumstance might be unsafe!

So far, Ford Motor Company is the sole automaker to take keyless ignitions to the next level. It made automatic engine cut-off feature standard in its 2014 models with keyless ignition.

Nor have automakers done much more to sharpen their communications with customers regarding the hazards of keyless ignitions. In May, the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, which has investigated more keyless-ignition related carbon monoxide deaths than any single law enforcement agency in the U.S. launched a public service campaign to warn drivers about the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning. The department shot a public service announcement.

You can watch it here. The department also created nifty refrigerator magnets emblazoned with the reminder: Did you turn your car off? 

Magnets and a PSA in one Florida community is a start – and its more than the automakers have done – but they are no substitute for regulations or a technological fix – only the government and industry can do that.