Can Keyless Entry be a Deadly Option?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 27, 2015

It’s a common convenience feature on new cars today—standard on luxury models, optional on others. Keyless entry definitely makes things easier for harried drivers who don’t have to fumble for their fobs, but is it also dangerous—even deadly?
Put the car right after the iron, the oven and your electric nosehair trimmers on the list of things you're worried you left running. (Jim Motavalli photo)I’ve driven dozens, if not hundreds of cars with keyless ignition, and I’ve never left a car running. But I definitely have done double-takes wondering if the car was “on” or not.

A federal class-action lawsuit filed in Los Angeles August 26 claims that the problem is serious. According to the two firms, Labaton Sucharow and Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, that filed the complaint, “When drivers leave these cars with the engine left silently running—a common occurrence—there is no automatic shut off to protect drivers and their families. The plaintiffs claim that this convenience feature, often a pricey add-on, was made without the institution of adequate safeguards, and automakers have misrepresented those vehicles as being safe.”

More than five million cars and trucks have keyless ignitions, and it’s becoming a ubiquitous feature. If a so-equipped car inside a garage is left running, the space (and the house, if attached to the garage) could be infiltrated by deadly carbon monoxide gas, and this has resulted in at least 13 deaths, the suit says.

It may seem counter-intuitive that drivers could go off and leave a running car. You can hear it, right? Our colleagues at see a common-sense issue here, with five million cars and 13 deaths. “Those numbers tell us the vast majority of people are not confused by the system,” says Bestride. “Human error does not constitute a manufacturing defect.”

But the lawsuit maintains that today’s cars are so quiet (it’s even a marketing feature) that people could easily not notice that they’re running. Further, hybrids and plug-in hybrids frequently start up in electric mode, which means “they lack any tell-tale sign that the ‘engine’ is running,” the suit says. Also, start-stop systems—on many non-hybrid cars now—might give the impression that a car was shut off.

People parking in the garage leave their fobs in the car, and that defeats the "car is still running" alarm. (Jim Motavalli photo)“Cars are so quiet now people don’t notice,” said Steve Berman, an attorney with Hagens Berman. “It’s a big issue for older folks.” Martis Alex, the lead lawyer for Labaton Sucharow, said the suit’s primary purpose is to persuade automakers to install automatic shutoff systems, which she described as a simple software update that could be dealer installed (as it was on older Chevy Volts). But the suit also seeks “recovery of economic loss,” she said.

Yes, many cars have warnings if you walk away with the fob in your pocket, but Alex said that, particularly when parking in their own garage, people tend to leave the keys in the car for convenience. And some cars with keyless entry have lacked such warnings.

In case histories cited in the suit, 29-year-old Chastity Glisson died in 2010 from carbon monoxide poisoning after her Lexus was left running in the garage. Her boyfriend, Timothy Maddock, was hospitalized for 10 days. Plaintiff Laima Zbojniewicz, owner of a BMW X3, left the engine running in a California parking lot, and then later did the same thing in her garage. She “has been concerned about the defect ever since this incident, including about her child’s safety,” the suit said.

According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, “As I said on ABC last night, if you can automatically turn off car lights 15 seconds after exiting a car, you can shut off an engine. People are hardwired to believe the car is off if they take the key with them. Warnings don’t get the job done. Any carbon monoxide death due to keyless ignition error is needless and can be prevented.”
The lawsuit is pursuing an injunction that would force automakers to put automatic shutoff devices on cars with pushbutton start. And as Ditlow points out, it’s certainly within their means. Some automakers have declined to comment on the suit, but Ford said that keyless entry has proven to be safe and reliable, and VW said that safety is its top priority.
This isn’t a completely new issue. In 2011, the national safety agency opened a compliance investigation into 34 late-model vehicles that allowed the key fob to be removed from a running car without warning the driver, among other issues. That probe, which hasn’t yet resulted in a rulemaking, came about after a Ford recall of 23,000 Focus vehicles with keyless entry but no warning system. The company took the cars back and added a “key in ignition” door chime. And ABC News did a story on keyless entry issues in 2012.

Here's ABC News' video on this:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter