Keyless ignition rule likely to track SAE plan

The NHTSA proposes rules for how keyless ignitions in cars should work.

Automotive News
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Automotive News
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The guidelines spell out ways to make the start button a kill switch. Automotive News

WASHINGTON--A federal plan to require automakers to standardize keyless ignition systems in the wake of Toyota's unintended acceleration problems is likely to mirror industry guidelines issued in January, an automaker group said.

Large automakers except Toyota said they already comply with the guidelines crafted by SAE International or plan to do so.

These "recommended practices'' seek to counter the variation, driver confusion, and safety problems that have ensued since automakers started installing push-button ignition in luxury models.

The number of models offering keyless ignition has more than quadrupled to 189 in the 2011 model year--including the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Fiesta and Focus--from 44 in 2006, according to Edmunds.com.

"The industry realizes it needs standardization," said SAE engineering specialist Peter Byk.

The SAE guidelines call for drivers to be able to stop a moving vehicle either with "a long" push of the ignition button--at least 0.5 to 2 seconds--or with two to three short pushes.

In contrast, Toyota vehicles--including some Camrys and Priuses and all Lexus models--have buttons that need to be held for 3 seconds to stop a moving car, a Toyota spokeswoman said last week.

One of the "significant factors" in the fatal 2009 crash of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three family members was the Lexus ES 350 push-button ignition "with no emergency instantaneous shut-off device," a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation found.

NHTSA has said it may propose a rule this year to standardize keyless ignition systems.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents the Detroit 3, Toyota, and eight other manufacturers, expects the SAE guidance to "serve as the base of whatever NHTSA further develops," Alliance spokesman Wade Newton said.

A spokeswoman for the federal agency declined comment.

NHTSA's February report on Toyota found keyless ignition systems "can exacerbate" prolonged incidents of unintended acceleration, particularly those involving a stuck gas pedal, "if the driver cannot determine how to shut off the engine quickly."

The investigation also found no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles that might have triggered high-speed accelerations. The only known causes of the problem were floor mat interference and sticky pedals, it said.

Among large automakers polled by Automotive News--including General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, Chrysler, Nissan, and Hyundai--only Toyota says it has no plans to comply with the SAE guidelines.

"We're waiting to see what the NHTSA plan is," Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. "NHTSA could come down with a different rule than SAE. We don't want to redesign our systems twice."

(Source: Automotive News)