The Keyless Ignition Litigation Solution

On Tuesday, the New York firm of Labaton Sucharow LLP filed a nationwide consumer class action in a Los Angeles federal court against 10 automakers who produce and market keyless ignition vehicles to force the implementation of an automatic cut-off feature.

The lawsuit is in response to a longstanding, widespread design defect that leads drivers to inadvertently leaving their keyless ignition vehicles running in the mistaken belief that the fob in their possession means that the engine is off. At least 13 carbon monoxide poisoning deaths have been attributed to the defect.

The Safety Record is quite sure that the manufacturers, including GM, Ford Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Volkswagen, will welcome the suit with open arms. As they told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about a decade ago in response to a proposed upgrade to the accelerator controls standard (FMVSS 124), it is their steadfast belief that “market forces and litigation pressure are sufficient to assure fail-safe performance without a Federal motor vehicle safety standard.” And, as the agency has yet to act on a 2011 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on FMVSS 114 that purports to address the carbon monoxide and rollaway hazards caused by these systems, litigation, it is!

Safety Research & Strategies has been studying the hazards of keyless ignition systems and advocating for a safety solution since 2009. Our work has included gathering the regulatory history, testing keyless ignition vehicles to assess their compliance with FMVSS 114, sifting NHTSA consumer complaints, keeping track of confirmed injuries and deaths, examining manufacturers’ customer communications regarding keyless ignition systems, and filing Freedom of Information Requests to determine what NHTSA has actually done to address this issue.

And we have shared that information in the form of news stories. And, in 2010, SRS President Sean Kane met with NHTSA officials to present our research. We specifically outlined the many ways keyless ignition vehicles changed the fundamental relationship between the driver and the key, while manufacturers misled their customers about how these systems actually worked. Early on, we concluded:

  • Keyless ignitions – as currently designed – introduced a hazard – carbon monoxide poisoning — that had heretofore not existed
  • Keyless ignitions are antithetical to the letter and intent of FMVSS 114
  • Keyless ignition systems have re-introduced the rollaway hazard – a problem that was ostensibly solved in 1992, after the agency published a Final Rule requiring vehicles with automatic transmissions that have a Park position to have a key-locking system that prevented removal of the key unless the transmission was locked in Park or became locked in Park as the direct result of removing the key.

In a series of interpretation letters, the agency allowed the evolution of the current systems. For regulatory purposes, the agency permitted an invisible electronic code to be considered the “key.” Unfortunately, customers thought the fob was the key – because manufacturers called it the key. Automakers forgot to tell their customers: yes, you need the fob to turn the vehicle on, but it plays no role in turning the vehicle off. So you can leave your vehicle running with the fob in your pocket and go far, far, far out of range, and that engine will keep running. Only some manufacturers have implemented an automatic engine cut-off feature which shuts the engine down after 30 minutes, if the driver’s side door has been opened and closed.

As NHTSA neglected to think the whole thing through from the get-go, it has been stuck trying to rectify its mistake without causing Sturm und Drang in the industry. It hasn’t gone well. The 2011 NPRM clearly acknowledged the carbon monoxide and rollaway hazards. But the best solution it could offer was louder warnings, based on a platform lift standard that was not based in any human factors testing. (In fact, nobody did any human factors testing.)  

To date, the agency has collected some 105 keyless ignition complaints related to carbon monoxide poisoning or drivers mistakenly leaving their vehicles running (46) or rollaways (59); but we know that this happens much more frequently. 

We like this class action. It seeks injunctive relief to eliminate the carbon monoxide standard by compelling automakers to implement a software patch that will cut off the engine, as well as the recovery of drivers’ economic losses. It’s do-able and will prevent these deaths. And as NHTSA said in 1967, when it first compelled automakers to design key systems that did not allow drivers to leave their keys in the ignition: “This is an instance in which engineering of vehicles is more likely to have an immediate beneficial impact than a long-range process of mass education.” (Or warnings, in this case.)

In the meantime, journalist Mark Greenblatt of Scripps Howard has provided some excellent coverage. You can access it here:

Keyless ignition deaths mount as regulators and auto manufacturers slow to act

Class action lawsuit targets automakers for keyless ignition dangers

To read our previous coverage of this issue:

Another CO Smart Key Death… and what Happens when Smart Keys Collide?

Not So “Smart Key” Standard

NHTSA Opens Smart Key Compliance Probe

Stupid Tricks with Smart Keys

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Car…