Push to Start: The Fight to Regulate Keyless Ignition Systems

Jessica Hernandez – On October 8, 2015, a bad dream roused Michael Sobik from his sleep. Sweet relief did not wash over him upon waking, though. On the contrary, Mr. Sobik immediately realized that he had fallen into a far worse nightmare. Something was wrong—terribly wrong. The smell of fumes prompted Mr. Sobik to bid his heavy legs to carry him into the garage, where he found his wife’s Lexus mercilessly pumping carbon monoxide into the air. After managing to make his way back to his bedroom, Mr. Sobik grabbed his wife, Janine Sobik, and dragged her outside. Almost visibly did Mrs. Sobik’s head spin with confusion as she struggled for air and asked her husband if they were going to die. Moments later, the fire marshals arrived. By then, carbon monoxide levels inside of the Sobiks’ home had soared to eighty times the amount tolerable by humans.

Although the Sobiks survived the horrors of that fateful October night, they escaped far from unscathed; today, Mrs. Sobik—who used to be a figure skater—cannot so much as run, Mr. Sobik’s memory loss is so severe that he often struggles to recall if he’s eaten lunch, and assistants are needed to help the Sobiks carry out the simplest of tasks. Many argue that the accident which destroyed the couple’s lives should have been wholly preventable. They maintain that the current legal landscape is partly to blame for tragedies resulting from drivers failing to turn off their keyless cars: there are no regulations imposed on auto manufacturers with respect to keyless ignition systems. Although many auto manufacturers have elected to formulate their own safeguards to fill the regulatory void, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) maintain that the internally determined standards of auto manufacturers are insufficient. Not surprisingly, Blumenthal and Markey are seeking to implement legislation which would introduce a degree of conformity amongst auto manufacturers and—most notably—require that vehicles featuring keyless ignition systems come armed with an automatic shut-off feature.

The first question to address in assessing proposals such as that put forth by Blumenthal and Markey regards desirability. Are regulations something which consumers should want? Because accidents like the Sobiks’ are increasing in frequency—and assuming that regulations could reverse this trend—the answer to this query should be a resounding ‘yes.’ Blumenthal and Markey are right to furrow their brows at auto manufacturers’ self-imposed internal standards. At the end of the day, the priorities of auto manufacturers and consumers do not always align. Hence, it stands to reason that it would prove immensely beneficial to have a body which isn’t comprised solely of auto manufacturing executives setting the standards which will regulate keyless ignition systems. In theory, this could aid in minimizing instances wherein consumer safety is sacrificed in the name of maximizing financial gain.

The second question to consider is whether auto manufacturers are likely to lend support to the introduction of regulations. The answer to this question is of particular significance when one bears in mind that legislators are often influenced not solely by the desires of their constituents but also by lobbyists. One group which will surely come up on legislators’ radars is the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (Auto Alliance), which advocates on behalf of twelve auto manufacturing giants—including BMW, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Toyota. Responding to the proposed legislation, the Auto Alliance released a statement wherein it noted the following: “Current keyless ignition system designs generally follow the recommended practices of the Society of Automotive Engineers, addressing operating logic, indication of vehicle ignition/control status and the physical control characteristics of keyless ignition systems.” Although the Auto Alliance’s statement offers no suggestion that it might lend support to Blumenthal and Markey’s proposal, not all auto manufacturers represented by the advocacy group have mirrored its stance. For instance, General Motors, which has implemented automatic shut-off functions in dozens of its models, openly lent support to Blumenthal and Markey’s proposal, and Ford, which has installed the automatic shut-off feature on all models manufactured post 2015, elected to review the senators’ measures and actively “work with the committee as it lays out its legislative agenda on vehicle safety.” (So perhaps all hope is not lost for Blumenthal and Markey on the auto manufacturing front.)

The final question to consider in the debate regarding whether or not to regulate keyless ignition systems is one of form: if we were to implement regulations, what should they look like? Blumenthal and Markey favor an automatic shut-off feature. However, not all consumers desire such a function. There are actually a number of instances wherein the ability to leave a car running proves immensely useful—such as when the driver needs to make a quick dash into the grocery store or bank but doesn’t want to leave their pet without air conditioning, or when one is working outdoors at night and opts to use their car’s headlights to help them see what they’re doing. Thus, at least in some cases, automatic shut-off capabilities prove more of an annoyance than anything else.

Contrasting General Motors and Ford, Toyota installs an alert system in its keyless cars; the vehicles beep externally three times when the driver exits with their keys and leaves their car running. Although critics of such an alert system might point to figures published by The New York Times—which indicate that Toyota’s vehicles are involved in nearly half of all fatal accidents resulting from a failure to turn off a keyless car—it is imperative to recall that correlation does not equal causation. That is, no proof has been adduced to support the conclusion that the accidents involving Toyota’s vehicles are indicative of the inadequacy of the alert system. A number of other rational explanations might be advanced to account for this phenomenon. Is it not possible that Toyota owners simply have garages—or store their cars in garages—in disproportion to owners of other cars? Also, might it not be true there are simply more keyless Toyota cars out on the streets than there are keyless General Motor vehicles, for instance?

Because both an automatic shut-off function and an alert system ultimately have unique strengths, the most appropriate solution from a regulatory standpoint is to enable auto manufacturers to choose between them. That is, regulations should not force automatic shut-off capabilities down the throats of auto manufacturers. Rather, regulations should mandate that auto manufacturers equip their keyless vehicles with at least one of two safeguards: an automatic shut-off function or an alert system. Not only will this route likely prove less offensive to auto manufacturers, it will also afford consumers some degree of freedom in choosing the safeguard feature that best suits their preferences.

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