Since 2006, nearly 30 people in the U.S. have died of carbon monoxide poisoning by their keyless-ignition vehicle. Apparently, the victims mistakenly believed they had turned off the car, but the vehicle was left running in the garage, according to an investigative report by The New York Times. Dozens of others have been injured in similar incidents, and some were left with severe brain damage. From news reports, civil lawsuits, police and fire records and incidents tracked by advocacy groups, The Times reports 28 deaths and 45 injuries since 2006. But those numbers could be higher.
Over half of the 17 million new vehicles sold annually in the United States come with standard keyless ignitions, according to Edmunds auto information. No longer is a traditional key needed to start those vehicles; they now start when the driver carries a “fob.” Vehicles are then started by a button on the dashboard and remain running as long as the fob is in or in close proximity to the car.
Many new cars are hybrid vehicles, with virtually silent engines. The danger is that drivers – especially older ones – can forget that the engine may still be running when they leave the fob in or near the car when after parking it in their garage. With the garage door closed and a silently running car, eventually everyone in the house can be overcome with carbon monoxide.
Not long after keyless ignition was introduced to the automotive world in 2006, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), a leading standards group for the auto industry, called on automakers to include warning systems in their fobs – something as simple as a series of beeps – to alert drivers when their cars were left on, according to the Times report.
After a class action lawsuit alleging that 13 carbon monoxide-related deaths were linked to keyless ignition cars was dismissed by a judge in 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) then proposed a new regulation similar to the SAE formula. Since their initial suggestion, the Society has suggested additional warning features to its “wish list” to improve the warning system. Some in the auto industry object to the SAE proposals, and NHTSA has dragged its feet in following through with regulations of any type addressing the keyless ignition/carbon monoxide quandary.
The past several years, regulators have appeared to be relying more on carmakers themselves to voluntarily add such warning features rather than taking an authoritarian stance and imposing a mandate. But a survey of 17 carmakers by The Times found that some of them already exceed the SAE recommended safety features for this problem; other manufacturers resist.
The Times report identified Toyota vehicles, including its luxury line of Lexus cars, as having embraced the SAE “beep” feature. The Japanese automaker so far continues to resist enhancements to that device which would better warn drivers when a vehicle is running.
Ford’s keyless vehicles on the other hand, recently incorporated a feature that automatically shuts down the engine after 30 minutes of idling if the key fob is not in the vehicle. The Detroit automaker introduced the feature in 2013, but many older vehicles have yet to be retrofitted,t even though the cost of such a retrofit could be negligible – as little as $5 per car.