The first time I started the car with the push of a button, it felt easy and comfortable — as if I had somehow stumbled into a tax bracket that I don’t belong to. “You’re telling me,” I thought, “I can just leave my keys in my pocket, and the car will let me in and drive?”
Push-button start is one of those buttons that doesn’t really do that Add Any new job on the thing being replaced (in this case, the ignition system that lets you insert a key and turn it on). It’s only there for convenience, a job it excels at. You get in the car, press down on the brake pedal and button, and you’re ready to drive. It’s hardly more difficult than unlocking your phone.
It’s also, for most of us, anyway, the most powerful energy we can generate with just our fingertips. Flipping a switch on the surge protector can give you close to 2000 watts. That’s no small amount, but pressing a button to start the car gives you the power to move yourself, your family, your luggage, and oh yeah, a thousands-pound machine at highway speeds.
The physical buttons themselves are relatively standard across the auto industry, which is surprising considering how different the regular old switches are. Each one I saw was round, located somewhere to the right of the steering wheel, and had lights to indicate that your car was running. There are some safety measures in place – many cars protect against accidental launch by requiring simultaneous depressurization of the brake pedal. On a personal level, it feels like the right combination of comfort and manual operation – the coordination of the foot and the hand makes you feel like a job Something, but you don’t have the annoyance of tampering with the key.
When I started writing this, I had the impression that the pushbutton start was a relatively recent feature, but its origins go back over a century. One of the first cars with button-based ignition was the 1912 Cadillac Model 30, which pushed a button to activate the electric starter that replaced the engine crank. Of course, these were pretty early days for “cars”, so the comfort factor was somewhat diminished by the few other steps (like adjusting the engine’s fuel/air ratio and spark timing) you had to do. However, it is fair to describe the Model 30 as having a push-button start. It was also keyless, not because it was communicating wirelessly with a fob the way modern cars do (clearly), but because… there was no key at all.
But at some point, people realized there was likely to be a way to stop someone from starting your car. There was a period when cars had keys to open the ignition switch, but you didn’t start the car with the key. However, by the 1950s many cars were coming equipped with the off-the-shelf ignition system most of us are familiar with today, replacing the button and lever system. And that’s how it mostly stayed put for so long until someone decided it was time to put the button back in and all the conveniences that come with a keyless.
Mercedes-Benz usually takes credit for promoting the feature with its KeylessGo system in the 1998 S-Class (the company asked if it considered itself the inventor of the modern starter propulsion system but it didn’t answer). While this car comes with a fairly standard key that you can turn to start the car, you can choose it to include a keyless system that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern car. As long as you have a special plastic card, you can walk into the car, get in and start it by pressing a button on top of the transmission.
For a while, paying to start was a luxury feature. That class S. I started Priced at $72,515, which is about $130,000 in today’s money. If you remember a slew of songs in 2010 from the likes of 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Lil Baby, and Wiz Khalifa that featured lyrics showing off cars that don’t have keys or that start with a button, this is why. (Khalifa points to his play button in two songs).
While the feature is no stranger here in 2022, it isn’t quite ubiquitous yet; Looking at the 2022 models of the 10 best selling cars in the US, only half of them come with this feature as standard. If you buy a lower model Toyota RAV4, Camry, Tacoma, Honda CR-V, or Ford F-150, you’ll get a conventional key fob to start it. (The fact that the base F-150 push-to-start doesn’t come as a surprise since the truck doesn’t even come with cruise control—yes, I’m serious.) However, by the time I’ve moved up two or three edges, all vehicles have given up the one-button ignition cylinder.
When I started my first car with the push of a button in 2020, I found it very confusing for the first few months (probably because I was only driving decades-old cars at that point). I would hold the button for a split second before the brakes, to make annoying beeping sounds from my car and a message “To start, press brake”. I’ve grown to love it, however, and now feels quite old to have to take the key out of my pocket and roll it into the engine whenever I’m driving another car. However, I’ll admit that for a month or two, I definitely tried to get out of the car (2016 Ford Fusion Energi) without turning it completely off, causing it to scream at me again.
This poses a problem, though: As with many amenities, button-starting has a cost. Dozens of people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning or uncontrolled moving vehicles after they left their cars running, assuming they would turn off after they exited with the key pulled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even has a page that warns people to be more aware if their car has a keyless ignition system. These deaths show that when a machine becomes easy enough to use without thinking, people won’t even think about it — and car manufacturers haven’t thought about the deadly repercussions of it. In 2021, several senators proposed laws that would mandate features to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and poisoning, but to date, these laws have not been passed.
Many manufacturers have begun to devise systems to prevent further deaths. But the days of the “tap to start” button may already be numbered, thanks to companies pushing the convenient envelope even further. Many luxury electric cars – most notably Teslas – are forgoing the manual start-up process entirely. You enter, choose your driving mode, and the car is ready to take you away.
While a lot of electric cars from traditional automakers such as Ford, Hyundai and Toyota are push-button start, there are indications that the buttonless start could already be underway; Volvo’s XC40 Recharge automatically turns on and off, and while the Volkswagen ID 4 has a start/stop button, its use is entirely optional according to the vehicle’s manual. It’s almost the same technology; The cars authenticate you via a fob, card, or even your smartphone, but they only activate or deactivate the motors when you use the gear selector, rather than making it a separate step.
Like I said before, I’m a little annoyed with the celebration, so I think it would be a shame if the pressure to start was completely replaced. Fortunately, if this is the future, it may take a long time to arrive, due to how slowly the buttons have spread since they reappeared. Until then, the button will continue to function as a luxury, giving those lucky enough to have something less to fill up on as they ride in on their morning commute.
Correction on May 31 at 7:02pm ET: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to carbon monoxide as carbon dioxide. Its actual chemical formula is carbon dioxide and we’re sorry for the error.