SOUTHFIELD, MICH. – The furor over General Motors' deadly ignition switch has the potential to doom the car key, a technology drivers have been using for 65 years.
Testifying before Congress this month, GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said the recall of 2.59 million affected cars may prompt the company to make push-button start standard in all its vehicles. The shift by the largest U.S. automaker would hasten a technological evolution that started with the hand-crank starter more than a century ago, before Chrysler introduced keyed ignition across its lineup in 1949.
Push-button start, which showed up in Mercedes-Benz models in the late 1990s, is now an option in 72 percent of 2014 cars and trucks in the U.S., according to Edmunds.com. In a survey conducted by auto researcher AutoPacific, consumers ranked the technology the fifth-most-coveted upgrade for $100 or less. This month the New York Auto Show used a push button as its logo.
"People really see the push button as a convenience and a luxury feature," said Bill Visnic, senior editor at Edmunds.com. "The ignition switch is a very fussy, electromechanical part that's seen as less reliable."
Drivers were complaining about key ignitions long before GM discovered switches in the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion could slip out of the "on" position, shutting off the engine and disabling air bags. The defective part has been linked to at least 13 deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has logged more than 18,000 complaints about key ignitions, according to a Bloomberg News analysis. They involve multiple models and carmakers and include keys getting stuck, vehicles stalling at high speeds and even cars starting on their own.
GM's faulty key ignition is fairly typical of the flaws cataloged by NHTSA over the years. The key could be inadvertently jarred by a knee, uneven road or weighed down by a heavy key chain. GM is under investigation because it waited more than a decade to recall the affected cars.
The recalled Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion models don't, in fact, top the list of ignition-related complaints in the NHTSA database. That distinction goes to Ford's Focus, which garnered more than 2,000 complaints about keys getting stuck or not turning, primarily in models from 2000 to 2005. Because Ford decided the flaw didn't imperil drivers, the company declined to recall the cars and instead alerted dealers to the problem so they could fix it.
"There was no safety risk, as this could only occur when the car was parked and the driver shut off the engine and tried to remove the key," Kelli Felker, a Ford spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
Automakers have recalled about 21 million vehicles for issues related to keyed ignition switches: more than 8.8 million from Ford, 5.5 million from GM, 3.5 million from Honda and 1.6 million from Chrysler and its predecessors.
"The biggest weakness for the key has always been that it was a rotating device; if you weigh it down, you can wear it out," said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst, who acknowledges replacing an ignition switch in a 1980s GM model after loading down the key ring with about 25 keys.
Push-button start has few moving parts and simply sends an electronic signal to the engine. The button works only if the driver brings a small remote unit, such as a keyless fob that also locks and unlocks the doors, into the vehicle.
The push-button system may be a boon as Americans age because it doesn't strain the wrist like turning a key, said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with auto researcher Kelley Blue Book, who said that was a frequent complaint among disabled drivers he's interviewed about making cars easier to drive.
Not that push-button start is trouble-free.
In 2009, a police officer couldn't shut off a button-start Lexus ES 350 after a floor mat got wedged in a pedal. He and three others died. That model required the driver to hold the start button down for as long as three seconds to stop the car. In 2011, NHTSA proposed a new standard of a half-second hold. The Society of Automotive Engineers recommends a range of a half-second to two seconds.
Getting used to such new technology always takes time, said Visnic of Edmunds.com. He recalled stopping by his house to drop off his gym bag and leaving the car running outside. It was only later when he tried to restart the vehicle that he realized he'd left the starter fob in the gym bag.
"We're asking people to unlearn something which was developed over generations of habit," he said: "You turned the key and it started or stopped."