That big button marked “Start” on your car’s dashboard may soon be marked “Stop.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to standardize keyless ignition systems to make sure drivers can shut off a runaway car. The move was prompted largely by complaints from hundreds of owners unable to stop their Toyotas and attention surrounding a high-profile accident that killed a family of four in 2009.
The hunt for the culprit behind the incidents provoked a firestorm of finger-pointing among politicians, safety organizations and the car insurance industry.
Those unintended acceleration incidents have been mostly attributed to accelerator-pedal design or floor mats wedged atop them, but NHTSA says a consistent means of shutting down the car is needed no matter what provokes the crisis. Currently, some cars will respond to a brief push on the starter button, some require a continuous push of two to three seconds and others may shut down after repeated jabs.
The proposed rule would require any car without a physical key to have a standardized button that stops the engine with a half-second push. The rule also would require some kind of audible warning when a driver tries to:
- Shut down the engine without putting the transmission in park.
- Leave the car without putting the transmission in park.
- Leave the car without shutting down the engine first.
Know how to shut down your car?
Keyless systems were installed in about one out of 10 cars sold in 2008, NHTSA says. They’ve only grown in popularity since then, appearing even on such low-budget models as the Ford Fiesta.
Currently the procedure to stop a running engine differs not only from manufacturer to manufacturer, but from car to car. Renters, drivers with multiple vehicles and drivers unfamiliar with the newer technology might benefit from a standardized procedure.
NHTSA complaint No. 10370169, regarding a 2009 Toyota Camry, is typical:
“As the consumer moved the gear from park to drive, with his foot on the brake, the vehicle began to accelerate and roar, the RPMs had redlined and the vehicle began to move forward and the brakes would not stop the vehicle from moving forward. The consumer put the gear in neutral and the vehicle was still accelerating. The consumer then immediately shifted the gear into park and the vehicle came to a screeching halt. … Inspection revealed nothing wrong with vehicle. Also, the tires had to be replaced due to excess wear.”
Pressing that Camry’s push-button starter would have worked, but only if held for three seconds, Car and Driver magazine found.
Even so, it’s worth noting that the car insurance industry, which sets its prices based on the auto insurance claims for each model, has made the Toyota Camry one of the cheapest new models to insure.