Push button ignition was a luxurious way to start your car until it wasn’t anymore

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Push button ignition was a luxurious way to start your car until it wasn't anymore

When I first started a car with the push of a button, it felt too easy and too convenient – like I somehow got into a tax bracket that I don’t belong in. “You’re telling me,” I thought, “I can just leave my keys in my pocket and the car will let me get in and drive around?”

The push button ignition is one of those buttons that doesn’t actually work Add any new functionality over what it replaces (in this case the ignition system, which requires you to insert and turn a key). It only exists for convenience, a task at which it excels. You get in the car, press the brake pedal and a button, and you’re ready to drive. It’s hardly more difficult than unlocking your phone.

Plus, for most of us, it’s the rawest power we can generate with just our fingertips anyway. Flick a switch on a surge protector and you can access nearly 2,000 watts. That’s no small sum, but pushing a button to start a car gives you the power to move yourself, your family, your luggage and, oh yes, a machine that weighs thousands of pounds at highway speeds.

Almost instant access to over 100 horsepower.
Image: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The actual keys themselves are fairly standard across the auto industry, which is surprising given how varied regular old keys can be. Everyone I’ve seen was circular, located somewhere to the right of the steering wheel, and has lighting to show your car is on. There are some safety measures – many cars protect against accidental starts by requiring the brake pedal to be pressed at the same time. In person it feels like just the right mix of comfort and manual process – the foot/hand coordination makes it feel like you are do something, but you don’t have the hassle of fiddling with a key.

When I started writing this, I was under the impression that push button launch is a relatively modern feature, but its origins date back over a century. One of the first cars to use button ignition was the 1912 Cadillac Model 30, which required you to push a button to activate the electric starter that replaced the engine crank. Of course, this was still a fairly early days for “cars” so the convenience factor was somewhat diminished by the few other steps (like adjusting the engine’s fuel/air ratio and ignition timing) you had to perform. Still, it feels fair to describe the Model 30 as a push-button start. It was also keyless, not because it communicated wirelessly with a key fob like modern cars do (apparently) but because there was just… no key at all.

However, at some point it became clear that there should probably be a way to prevent someone from starting your car. There was a time when cars had keys to unlock the ignition, but you didn’t actually turn the car on with the key. However, in the 1950s many cars were fitted with the turnkey ignition system that most of us are familiar with today, replacing the system of knobs and levers. And it mostly stayed that way for quite a while, until someone decided it was high time to bring back the button and all the keyless convenience that came with it.

Mercedes-Benz is usually credited for popularizing the feature with the KeylessGo system in the 1998 S-Class (I asked the company if they considered themselves the inventors of the modern push-to-start system, but none Answer received). While this car came with a standard key that you could turn to start the car, you could optionally outfit it with a keyless system, which wouldn’t look out of place in a modern car. As long as you had a special plastic card with you, you could walk up to the car, get in, and turn it on by pressing a button on top of the shifter.

Push-to-start was a luxury feature for a while. This S class started at $72,515, which is about $130,000 in today’s money. If you remember the many songs in the 2010s by the likes of 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Lil Baby and Wiz Khalifa that had lyrics about cars that didn’t have keys or the ones with a button started, that’s why . (Khalifa is referring to its push button ignition two Songs).

The push-to-start car key fobs usually do not have a metal blade, making them more convenient to carry in your pocket than traditional keys.
Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Edge

While the feature isn’t that exotic here in 2022, it’s not ubiquitous just yet; Looking at the 2022 models of the top 10 best-selling cars in the US, only half of them come with this feature as standard. If you buy the lowest model Toyota RAV4, Camry or Tacoma, a Honda CR-V or a Ford F-150, you will get a traditional twist key to start it. (The exclusion of the base F-150 from push-to-start isn’t exactly a surprise, since the truck doesn’t even come with cruise control — yes, I mean it.) However, until you’ve climbed up two or three disguises, all vehicles dispense with the ignition cylinder for a button.

When I got my first car with a start button in 2020, I found it quite confusing for the first few months (probably because I was only ever driving decades-old cars at that point). I would press the button a split second before the brake, which elicited annoying beeps from my car and the “Press brake to START” message. I’ve come to love it though, and now it feels downright archaic to have to take the key out of my pocket and turn the ignition when I’m driving another car. However, I will admit that for a month or two I definitely tried to get out of the car (a 2016 Ford Fusion Energi) without turning it off completely, which resulted in it yelling at me again.

However, this poses a problem: as with many conveniences, push-button starts come at a cost. Several dozen people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning or uncontrolled vehicles after leaving their cars running believing they would shut down after exiting with the key fob in tow. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even has a page warning people to be extra careful if their car has a keyless ignition system. These fatalities show that when a machine is easy enough to operate without thinking, people don’t think about it — and vehicle manufacturers haven’t considered the deadly implications. In 2021, several senators proposed legislation that would mandate carbon monoxide poisoning prevention features and rollaway beds, but so far the legislation has not passed.

Many manufacturers have started developing systems to prevent further deaths. But the days of the push-to-start button may already be numbered, thanks to companies pushing the convenience envelope even further. Many luxury electric vehicles – especially Teslas – completely dispense with a manual start process. You get in, choose your driving mode and the car is ready to take you.

Strangely, Volvo’s website shows a blank space where the XC40 Recharge’s push-to-start button would be, but no actual button.
Image: Volvo

While many EVs from more traditional automakers like Ford, Hyundai and Toyota will feature push-button start, there are signs that buttonless start may already be trickling down; Volvo’s XC40 Recharge turns on and off automatically, and while Volkswagen’s ID 4 has a start/stop button, according to the vehicle’s manual its use is entirely optional. It’s more or less the same technology; The cars authenticate you via a key fob, card, or even your smartphone, but they only activate or deactivate the motors when you use the gear selector, rather than making that a separate step.

Like I said, I’m a bit of a ceremonies sucker, so I think it would be a shame to see push-to-start replaced entirely. Luckily, if that’s the future, it could be quite a while to arrive given how slowly buttons have spread since their resurgence. Until then, the button will continue to function as a little luxury, giving those lucky enough to have one less thing to fiddle with while hopping in the car for their morning commute.

Correction May 31, 7:02 p.m. ET: In the original version of this article, carbon monoxide was incorrectly referred to as CO2. Its actual chemical formula is CO. We regret the mistake.

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