NHTSA Reexamining Electronic Keys

Mar 25, 2011


CONCERN over the implications of a 2006 revision to a federal safety standard is spurring regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to reconsider their change. At issue is whether the change, which redefined what constitutes a car’s ignition key, has effectively increased the possibility of accidents caused by a vehicle rolling away.

The matter involves the so-called smart key fobs used in millions of vehicles to replace conventional metal keys. Instead of pins and tumblers, these devices use an electronic code that enables a vehicle to be started either by pressing a button or inserting the fob into a slot on the dashboard.

The problem is that under the revised NHTSA standard for such devices, the vehicle’s engine can be shut off and the key fob removed without the automatic transmission being shifted to the Park position. A spokesman for the safety agency, Jose Alberto Ucles, said in an e-mail exchange that the chief concerns behind the fresh look at the standard “are vehicle roll-away, theft, possible carbon monoxide poisoning and shutting off moving vehicles in the event of an emergency.”

Since 1992, automakers have been required under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 to prevent the key from being removed from the ignition unless the transmission is in Park, a measure intended to prevent the “accidental roll-away of motor vehicles.”

But as electronic fobs became more popular, the agency expanded its definition of the key beyond the traditional physical object to include the electronic codes of smart fobs. This change would prove an unpleasant surprise for some drivers.

 “It doesn’t pass the common-sense test,” said Sean Kane, the president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts consulting firm that provides research for plaintiff’s attorneys.

A spokeswoman for the safety agency, Karen Aldana, said in an e-mail that automakers originally asked the agency whether an electronic code could be considered a key and they were told that was allowed. “NHTSA doesn’t wish to discourage innovation when it comes to automotive technology,” she wrote.


[via The New York Times]


Photo courtesy of khedara and re-used under the Creative Commons license.