So You Think You Know How to Start a Car

Only about a quarter of 2021 models still use a traditional key. Your next key? Probably your phone.
Philip Reed
By Philip Reed 
Edited by Des Toups

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Has this happened to you? A rental car shuttle van drops you off in a distant corner of a vast parking lot with a key fob but no instructions for how to use it to start the car. You sit inside the unfamiliar rental and wonder which magic combination of buttons will start the engine.

Welcome to the modern world of ever-increasing convenience.

The physical car key is being slowly phased out: Only about a quarter of 2021 models still use a key, according to data provided by iSeeCars, a website that aggregates used car listings. Beginning with remote keyless entry, then "proximity" keys, luxury cars in the early 2000s began using a key fob that not only opened the door but let you start the car with the push of a button.

Convenience has a price

Now, as we pivot to this new world of technology, there are a few potholes in the road to convenience:

  • Lost key fobs. Today’s harried drivers enter the car and sometimes toss the key in a cup holder only to forget it’s there. This leads to all sorts of minor and major problems.

  • Dead batteries. If the key fob’s battery suddenly dies, drivers are confused about how to enter and start the car.

  • Theft. Key fobs emit a radio frequency that unlocks a car and starts it. This is a great theft deterrent — unless your key fob is still in the cup holder. Increasingly, crooks look for such an easy opportunity and drive away, according to The New York Times.

  • Cars left running. “The start/stop engine function has been the cause of safety concerns,” says Kelly Funkhouser, Consumer Reports’ head of testing for connected and automated vehicles. If a driver pulls into an attached garage, they might forget to put it in park or turn off the car. In some cases, this has led to the garage filling with poison carbon monoxide exhaust.

While traditionalists might feel nostalgia for the tactile sensation of a key firing up a rumbling engine, it helps to remember what triggered the move to push-button start.

General Motors paid $120 million to settle lawsuits stemming from defective ignition switches that suddenly shut off a car. In response, GM adopted push-button ignition across its cars, according to Car and Driver magazine, because “with no key to turn, there's far less danger of shutting off a car while in motion, whether accidentally or due to a faulty part.”

And carmakers have begun addressing the issues keyless driving brings.

Toyota, an early adopter of push-button start, has refined its systems. Starting in 2020, some of its models have a feature called “Auto Shut Off.” The engine is automatically turned off after a predetermined period if the vehicle is left running.

To prevent theft from key fobs left in cup holders, some automakers such as Mercedes display a "Don't forget your key" message on the center screen.

On the horizon is even more convenience, including a credit-card-sized card that starts the car while safely tucked into the owner’s wallet or, increasingly, reliance on technology that rarely is far from its owner's hands: the smartphone.

Your next key is probably your phone

Even the experts sometimes need a moment. Brent Romans, Edmunds' senior editor of written content, says he recently got into a Tesla and thought, “‘How do you start this thing?’”

Tesla famously pioneered the phone app key that both unlocks and starts the car.

Romans says some manufacturers — Hyundai, BMW and Lincoln among them — are beginning to offer a similar option where you can program your phone to act as a key fob since, as he says, “smartphones are nearly ubiquitous.”

Ed Barker, a Tesla owner and retired educator living in Orange County, California, says the start-up sequence on his Model 3 required a tutorial from the dealer when picking up the car. Now, however, it’s become second nature. Barker says when he sees a key-start car he thinks, “That seems really primitive.”

So, is it really more convenient? “Yes, overall,” Romans says. “My wife hates fishing around in her handbag for the keys. As a guy, I always put my key in my pocket, so it’s a lesser value.”

Keyless essentials

If your car has a remote system, here are two things you should know about ahead of time:

  1. You still have options when the remote is dead. Check your owner’s manual before this happens to you on a dark and rainy night. Many car makers can unlock your car remotely, but many fobs have a physical key buried inside, too. Once in the car, you may find a legacy slot for the ignition key, or a designated spot to place the key fob that enables the start button.

  2. There is still an accessory mode. Most cars require the driver to press the start button without putting your foot on the brake pedal to use accessories such as the radio.

Also keep in mind that this new key-free world offers these benefits:

  • With fewer moving parts, key fobs have less chance of malfunctioning.

  • Keys dangling from a chain scratch your car’s paint or even can become dangerously tangled with car controls.

  • You have to try really hard to lock your keys in the car.

  • In the winter you don’t have to take off your gloves to fish your fob out of your pocket or purse.

Consumer Reports' Funkhouser says she personally loves the absence of ignition switches in electric vehicles. "But it's a mixed bag of opinions among our testing team here at the track," she says. “I have accidentally left my keys in the cup holder more times than I'd like to admit.”

If you’re a key-twisting diehard, many lower-trim models from major automakers like Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Subaru, Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda and Kia still require a key to start, according to iSeeCars.

The current key fob is “only a stepping stone to the digital age … and will eventually follow traditional metal keys into the realm of obsolescence,” says Karl Brauer, iSeeCars' executive analyst.

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