Are Hybrid & Electric-Car Keyless Entry Fobs A Safety Hazard?

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2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt on test in Little Rock, Arkansas, July 2011

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There's no question that the Chevy Volt has been through more than its share of travails.

But with last month's Volt sales at an all-time high--though it's not clear they will continue at that rate--things have been looking up for the Volt.

Now Ryan Turner, a Volt owner and regular reader of this site, suggests that the Volt has an unaddressed issue that could potentially pose a safety hazard under certain circumstances.

The same issue, in fact, applies to every hybrid and plug-in hybrid car whose engine may stay off some of the time.

It has to do, Turner says, with the Volt's keyless entry system. It appears that a number of Volt owners have forgotten to turn their car off at one point or another. 

When the Volt is operating on battery power, the engine doesn't run, so aside from dashboard lights, there's very little to remind owners that the car is on.

In a highly unscientific poll of Volt owners, Turner found that roughly one in three admitted to having stepped away from their car without turning it off.

In a pure electric car, this wouldn't be an issue; the car would eventually shut itself down to protect the battery. But the Volt, Turner says, will stay on until the battery depletes, at which point its engine will switch on.

In one thread on a Volt forum, an owner recounts forgetting to turn the car off, and returning to find the engine running and the garage filled with carbon monoxide and exhaust fumes only a few hours later.

Kevin Kelly, GM's Manager, Electric Vehicle and Hybrid Communications, explained that it's a standard feature of any car with a pushbutton start and a proximity-sensing system with a keyless fob to say on even if the fob is removed from the car.

He posed the scenario of a broken-down car with a family inside.

If the driver leaves to get help, taking the fob, it's important that the car can stay running so the heater or air conditioner works and the remaining occupants don't freeze or broil.

2013 Chevrolet Volt 5dr HB Dashboard

2013 Chevrolet Volt 5dr HB Dashboard

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Kelly noted that if the Volt is on and the driver's door opens--indicating that the driver may be about to depart--the chime that sounds is louder than any other warning the car makes.

And there's a secondary alert system as well, he said: If the fob remains inside the car, but the driver's seat sensor indicates that the seat isn't occupied and the driver's door closes, the horn chirps twice, again louder than the normal volume of the pedestrian-alert chirp.

Turner counters that these "audible cues are minimal, and if you are distracted or there is noise around you, the car will seem to be off."

"Many people, like myself, end up getting out of their car to get the mail, then driving the car into the garage," he says.

While he acknowledges the warnings, Turner says, "We get used to all the internal beeps of the car, and become use to it to the point of ignoring it."

Turner wants the Volt to warn owners more aggressively, with "very distinct honking" to alert the driver.

Pushbutton start, panel alignment gaff

Pushbutton start, panel alignment gaff

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While he would like a system to power down the car, he acknowledges that " it would have to be carefully done; you don’t want to have a child killed from heat exposure when you quickly go into a store to pick up a soda and the car decides to cut itself off."

Finally, Kelly pointed out, the same "on but silent" scenario is hardly confined to the Chevy Volt; it applies to every hybrid or plug-in hybrid that has a proximity fob and push-button start.

It even applies to conventional cars with very quiet gasoline engines, as is alleged in two separate incidents involving Toyotas in New York.

The NHTSA is now considering setting safety standards for keyless entry systems and pushbutton starters, although no proposals have been released as yet.

What do you think? Is this a valid concern, or is our reader worrying about something that owners should train themselves to avoid?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (16)
  1. I have had a Prius for six years and never had this problem. However...

    I do have a problem with trying to step out of the car without it being in park. My wife, of course, says she never has this problem.

    I think this is a problem with the Prius park button. I swear it ignores the press if you push it too soon after you stop the car.

  2. So we made cars easier for people to drive. But now we have "more idiots" to worry about?

    There is an old saying in engineering world. If you make something idiot proof, somebody will make a better idiot...

    Typically, when I exit my Volt, I will usually look for the Charge door button so I can get it charged. So, leaving it running inside the garage is usually never happening.

    Volt does have warning sound and door chimes.

    They should design it when the key fobs are away, it will warn and then shuts off the car. You should never LEAVE THE CHILD IN THE CAR ANYWAY. If you leave another adult with the child in the car, then LEAVE the KEY.

  3. Should we change the parking brakes too since their are people killed in their own driveway by THEIR OWN CAR b/c they forgot to set the parking brakes (manual car and not in gear) and the car rolled over the drivers who were trying to retrieve things from the trunk...

  4. If 1in 3 people were doing this, then yes. Since it obviously doesn't happen very often, then no.

  5. Good point. Also, if there is an obvious simple technical solution, it should be implemented. I think the problems with the key fob issue is that it is difficult to figure out driver "intend" from the observable driver "actions" that can be sensed by the car.

    I certainly don't know how to fix it, but blaming the driver is not always the best approach (although sometimes it has to come down to that).

  6. If 1 in 3 people were doing this had any problems, then yes. Since problems obviously don't happen very often, then no.

    There are children dying each year when left unattended in the summer heat. Using a big battery to cool the cars will eliminate these horrible tragedies. Relying on the car to turn off at some point, made with a soft ware decision, puts children in these circumstances at further risk.

  7. " returning to find the engine running and the garage filled with carbon monoxide and exhaust fumes only a few hours later"

    How much CO and exhaust fumes will Volt generate in few hours if Volt's ICE qualify as AT-PZEV. That mean it has to be super clean even when it is cold.

    Also, How long will it take to drain Volt's battery (assuming with A/C/Heat on) before it has to start the gas engine?

    If the A/C and Heat are off, the Volt's main battery is MORE than ENOUGH to power the car for few hours without ICE on.

    I followed the thread on Volt's forum. I am Sure it can happen, but there has to be mulitiple things to go wrong before that happens...

  8. This is about people forgetting to switch off before leaving the vehicle, so presumably they just took it for a ride and the battery is low now; the engine will switch on very quickly. Of course cars automatically switching on their engines unattended is a dangerous thing; at the very least there should be a carbon monoxide sensor in the car to prevent disasters, which BTW usually are caused by a chain of coincidences.

  9. Keyless Fobs are not a safety hazard in themselves, but it's a hazzard if a vehicle remains engaged when a driver is not present.

    Technology exists and is already in vehicles for turning off headlights. Typically manufactures use a (non)motion sensor with a timer, or a proximity switch that turns power off when driver is so far away.

    A EREV (Extended Range EV), or PHEV (Plugin Hybrid EV) should never start it's engine (petro, or otherwise) without a driver present and in control. A number of states have laws regarding running a vehicle unattended (e.g. running gas vehicle unattended in a cold climate). Also, insurance companies may question your coverage should something happen.

  10. Well, one of the Volt driver left his car on so his dog can enjoy the A/C while he shopped...

    Would you rather his dog "cooked" death in the summer heat? He actually "loved" that feature.

  11. The only way it can be fixed is that car will default to be "off" once the key fob leaves for certain amount of time (ie, 5 mins). Then in order for it to stay on longer than that, the driver has to "set it each time" he/she turns the car on...

  12. A small neat fix is that if the Volt knows it is parked at “home” as defined by the Sat Nav (assuming people have set the “home” on Sat Nav or via OnStar or something) then if car is “home” for period X (1-2 hours) it turns itself off.......

    Clearly won't help with parking at the airport long-stay parking ...but it would help in some cases.

  13. you will never be able to completely idiot proof any vehicle. period. EVs are no different. audible warnings are more than enough for me

  14. just add an automatic shock thing for repeat offenders. Nothing like Pavlovian behavior.

  15. Love it, Howard! That should lower the I-D-1-0-T errors.

  16. Can the car be "on" if plugged in?

    Really sounds like human error/ stupidity.

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