Push-button ignition is a luxurious way to start a car until it’s not

The first time I pushed the button to start the car, it felt too easy and convenient – like I had somehow fallen into a tax bracket I didn’t belong to. “Are you telling me,” I thought, “that I can put my keys in my pocket and the car will let me in for a drive?”

Button ignition is one of those buttons that doesn’t actually matter Add to Any new functionality of the thing it’s replacing (in this case, the ignition system that lets you plug in and turn the key). It exists only for convenience, the job it excels at. You get in the car, hit the brake pedal and a button, and you’re ready to go. It’s almost more difficult than unlocking the phone.

Regardless, for most of us, it’s also the most raw power we can generate with our fingertips. Flicking a switch on a surge protector can get you nearly 2,000 watts of power. That’s not a small sum, but start the car at the push of a button and you can move yourself, your family, your luggage, and, oh yes, a machine that weighs thousands of pounds on the highway.

More than 100 horsepower is available almost instantly.
Image: Amelia Holowaty Krales/The Verge

The actual buttons themselves are relatively standard across the auto industry, which is surprising considering how different regular old keys are. Every one I’ve seen is round, somewhere to the right of the steering wheel, and has lights to indicate your car is on. There are some safety measures – many cars prevent accidental starts by requiring the brake pedal to be pressed at the same time.Personally, it feels like the perfect mix of convenience and a manual process – the foot/hand coordination makes you feel doing stuff, but you don’t have the hassle of fiddling with keys.

When I started writing this article, I was under the impression that button start is a relatively modern feature, but its origins go back more than a century. The 1912 Cadillac Model 30 was one of the first cars to use push-button ignition, which let you push a button to activate an electric starter that replaced the engine crank. Of course, it’s still early days for “cars”, so the convenience factor is somewhat undercut by the few other steps you have to do (like setting the engine’s fuel/air ratio and ignition timing). Still, it feels fair to describe the Model 30 as having a push-button start. It’s also keyless, not because it communicates wirelessly with the key fob like in modern cars (obviously), but because… there is no key at all.

However, at some point, people realized there should be a way to prevent anyone from starting your car. There was a time when cars had a key to unlock the ignition, but you didn’t actually use the key to open the car. By the 1950s, however, many cars were equipped with the turnkey ignition system most of us are familiar with today, replacing the button and lever system. That’s mostly the way it stuck around for a long time until someone decided it was time to bring the buttons back and all the keyless convenience that comes with it.

Mercedes-Benz is usually credited with popularizing the feature with the KeylessGo system in the 1998 S-Class (I asked the company if it considered itself the inventor of the modern push-start system, but received no response). While that car comes with a standard key that you can turn to start the car, you can opt to include a keyless system that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern car. As long as you have a special plastic card, you can walk to the front of the car, get in, and press the button on top of the gear lever to turn it on.

For a while, one-button start was a luxury feature.that S class start $72,515, or $130,000 in today’s dollars.If you remember 2Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Lil Baby, and Wiz Khalifa, among others, a ton of songs from the 2010s with lyrics about cars without keys or starting with buttons, here’s why. (Khalifa in two song).

Key fobs used to push a car to start often don’t include metal blades, making them more comfortable in a pocket than traditional keys.
Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

While the feature isn’t all that exotic here in 2022, it’s not fully ubiquitous; looking at the 2022 models of the 10 best-selling cars in America, only half of them come standard with the feature. If you buy the lowest-end Toyota RAV4, Camry or Tacoma, Honda CR-V or Ford F-150, you get a traditional key to start it. (Given that the truck doesn’t even have cruise control, it’s not necessarily surprising that the base F-150 excludes push-button start — yes, I mean it.) But when you move up to two or three trims, All vehicles have dropped the button to fire the cylinder.

When I got my first car with push-button start in 2020, I found it pretty confusing for the first few months (probably because I’d only driven decades-old cars at the time). I would press the button a second before braking, which would bring out annoying beeps and a “start pressing the brake” message from my car. I’ve come to like it more and more, though, and now every time I drive another car, having to take the key out of my pocket and wiggle it on the ignition feels so outdated. I’ll admit, though, that within a month or two I did try to get out of the car (a 2016 Ford Fusion Energi) without completely shutting down the car, which prompted it to yell at me again.

This does pose a problem, though: Like many conveniences, push-button activation comes at a price. Dozens of people have died from carbon monoxide poisoning or losing control of their vehicles, thinking they would turn off the car after getting out of the car 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 deaths show that when a machine becomes easy to use without thinking, people don’t think about it — and automakers don’t think about its deadly effects. In 2021, several senators have introduced laws that would mandate protection against carbon monoxide poisoning and rollovers, but so far those bills have not passed.

Many manufacturers have started to come up with systems to prevent further deaths. But as the company pushes convenience even further, the days of hitting the start button may be numbered. Many luxury EVs—especially Teslas—have ditched the manual-start process entirely. You get in the car, choose your driving mode, and the car is ready to take you away.

Interestingly, Volvo’s website shows a blank space where the XC40 Recharge’s start button is, but no actual button.
Image: Volvo

While a slew of EVs from more traditional automakers such as Ford, Hyundai and Toyota feature push-button start, there are signs that push-button start may already be gaining ground. Volvo’s XC40 Recharge turns on and off automatically, while Volkswagen’s ID 4 has a start/stop button, and using it is completely optional, according to the car’s manual. It’s more or less the same technology. The car authenticates you with a key fob, a card or even a smartphone, but they only activate or deactivate the motor when you use the gear selector, not individually.

As I said before, I kind of dislike ceremony, so I think it would be a shame to replace push start entirely. Thankfully, if that’s the future, it could take quite a while to arrive, as the button has spread very slowly since its renaissance. Until then, the button will remain a little luxury, allowing those lucky enough to have one less thing to fumble with on their morning commute.

Correction May 31st 7:02pm ET: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to carbon monoxide as CO2. Its actual chemical formula is CO. We regret this error.

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