Why does GM make cars with physical ignition keys?

One of our government-selected automobile manufacturers (General Motors) is in the news due to hundreds of GM owners and family members who are now dead due to a faulty ignition switch design (LA Times). The big question for me is why GM continued (and continues) to make cars with physical ignition keys. A long time ago they apparently figured out that they were not good at making reliable physical ignition key systems. Why didn’t they just make a corporate decision to switch to making only cars where this deficiency wouldn’t be an issue? If they’d done it as a company and made every car with keyless ignition it shouldn’t have cost that much extra. According to Wikipedia, GM has had the technology to do this since 1993 when they introduced a Corvette with such a system.

Why would the company try to fix the problem instead of just engineering the cars so that the problem could not recur?


  1. SenorP

    March 19, 2014 @ 8:10 pm


    It sounds simple on the surface, but it’s much more complicated than a button on the dash. Currently, ignition key locks also mechanically activate the steering wheel lock, which prevents the car from steering without the key. Then there is the issue of what happens when the cars battery dies? With no power to engage relays or solenoids, you wouldn’t be able to push-start a manual car, for example. Plus, there are a raft of sensors needed to determine if the key fob is in the car, out of the car, what happens when it gets removed, etc. GM’s current “keyless” ignition systems still have a place to insert the key/fob as a backup. Then, there is the fact that any locksmith can service and duplicate a standard key as found on most economy vehicles. Keyless ignitions tend to be proprietary, and as a result, several orders of magnitudes more expensive to service. Ever lose a keyless entry fob, or a fancy “security” ignition key? Hundreds of dollars for what used to cost a few bucks. All this complication ads to the cost, and introduces a whole new set of potential hardware and software problems. People are used to keys, and they work without issue 99.99% of the time for most people.

    GM would like you to believe they can’t build locks after decades of doing it, because it’s more palatable than: we continued to let people die and didn’t issue a recall because it made financial sense for us.

  2. Fazal Majid

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:23 pm


    There is actually a tradeoff.

    When CHP Officer Mark Saylor died with 3 others because the accelerator throttle got stuck, he had 2 options: shut off the engine or switch to neutral (as another person getting the same loaner had to do a little earlier). Despite being a trained police officer, he thought of neither, his car sped off at 100mph, flipped over and exploded. The brake pads were completely melted and fused to the wheels:

    Emergency engine shut down in a car with keyless ignition requires pressing and holding the button for 3 seconds. In a situation like his (unfamiliar car speeding out of control), he probably had neither the presence of mind or the time to do so. I didn’t know about this feature either until I read the article. A mechanical switch would have kicked in immediately, although the loss of hydraulic steering assistance would probably have entailed a loss of control of the vehicle.

    Read the article, it should clear any doubts as to whether Toyota’s $1.2Bn fine was deserved.

  3. philg

    March 20, 2014 @ 1:07 am


    Guys: I did not mean to suggest that keyless ignitions were perfect or failure-free. I only meant to point out that they are clearly the wave of the future (unless car companies adopt my idea of letting people use their phones to authenticate to the car). So why didn’t GM just migrate to this consumer-desired technology and render the physical ignition key problems moot?

  4. SenorP

    March 20, 2014 @ 2:34 am


    I think the answer is that they’d simply be swapping a small, known set of long-solved problems for a larger set of unknown, and more expensive ones.

    Keyed ignitions are proven to be safe and reliable overall. This is a tiny blip in the scheme of the number of cars sold with functioning ignitions since 1949 or so.

    The real issue relates to engineering, manufacturing, and business. Problems cropped up and this time it had to do with ignition assemblies in GM vehicles. It just as easily could’ve reared it’s head on any number of other components from any manufacturer.

    When you engineer and manufacture, especially for a cost, problems can arise. Isn’t this precisely why aircraft are so expensive and relatively slow to advance–there is zero tolerance for mistakes? New designs get scrutinized, tested and insured to death. The result is that what’s affordable are antiquated yet proven designs, even if they are not the best, most efficient, reliable or least expensive to build.

  5. Federico

    March 20, 2014 @ 5:09 am


    Keyless problem: you can buy a nice gadget (at least in London, UK) that will try all the possible frequencies combinations for a given car and ride away with it, or steal what’s in it. I know the owner of a keyless car who was a victim of this twice. My understanding is that cars with keys would require a proper break in, which is more likely to attract attention.

  6. J. Peterson

    March 20, 2014 @ 4:48 pm


    @Fredrico – I’d be curious to see a link to the gadget. Most auto key-fob locks using a rolling pseudo-random security code (example). Getting it to open without a matching key requires some serious computational effort. I’ve heard of it being cracked, but it either requires FPGAs to generate all the possible combinations, or intercepting some successful transmissions from the actual key before the code is cracked.

  7. philg

    March 20, 2014 @ 4:54 pm


    Federico: http://www.caranddriver.com/features/can-thieves-steal-your-keyless-entry-codes contradicts your theory, but http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/high-tech-car-theft-3-minutes-steal-keyless-bmws confirms it to some extent (at least for BMWs).

    Nobody has stolen my keyless 2007 Nissan! Maybe that means that nobody wants it.

  8. Jeff Zanooda

    March 21, 2014 @ 2:18 pm


    Fazal, a third option was to simply slam on the brakes, hard. Brakes will win. Any car can decererate from 60 to 0 faster than it can accelerate from 0 to 60. It’s possible to overheat the brakes by attempting to brake gently, but that would clearly be human error.

    I was in unintended acceleration situation. It was surprising, but not really dangerous. I just switched to neutral. RPM limiter prevented the engine from blowing up, giving me enough time to pull back the doormat.

    Now locked steering wheel is a different story. It’s much more dangerous than stuck throttle.

  9. Julian

    March 22, 2014 @ 5:25 pm


    A button for ignition is much more reliable than the key (it also prevents to break the electric start engine) *but* as some people pointed before the key (as a “mechanical” device) is also needed. As pointed: to release the wheel (locked to prevent theft) and to turn off quickly the engine if needed.

    So… take a look to the motorbikes, they use both systems since long time ago: use the key to unlock the handlebar and then just press the button to turn on the engine. Moving the key turns off the engine and releasing it locks the handlebar. Perfect combination.

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