Death by Wireless Key Fob

It has long been observed that technology is generally neutral. If used wisely and with caution it can make work more efficient, life more convenient, and even save lives. But if used recklessly it can be a diabolical source of destruction and death.

The latest illustration of this truism is the wireless key fob that has recently been introduced to enable car owners to turn the power on or off with the push of a button, rather than the mechanical turning of a key.

One morning last year, Fred Schaub drove his Toyota RAV4 into the garage attached to his Florida home and went into the house with the key fob, evidently thinking the power was off. A little over 24 hours later, he was found dead from the carbon monoxide that seeped into his home while he was asleep.

“After 75 years of driving, my father thought that when he took the key with him when he left the car, the car would be off,” said his son Doug.

Since 2006, more than two dozen people have succumbed to carbon dioxide poisoning in similar incidents in the U.S. involving the wireless fobs. Dozens of others have been injured, some left with brain damage.

We are not experts in wireless technology; but it would seem that the folks who invented the keyless ignition could also invent one with a safety feature that could avert these tragedies. Perhaps a warning light or a beep to alert the driver when the power is left on for a certain amount of time while the car is stationary.

In fact, the experts think so too. The means for such a solution exists. In 2011, the Society of Automotive Engineers recommended, among other ideas, a series of beeps to indicate that cars were still running without the key fob in or near the car, and with a capability to shut the engine off automatically.

Clearly, it can be done. So why hasn’t the industry implemented the recommendation?

Prohibitive cost? No.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined that a software adaptation could be introduced for a few cents per vehicle. A small price to pay for a life-saving feature (and which, in any case, would likely be passed on to the consumer).

No, the reason such action has not been taken is because the auto industry opposes a regulation requiring it. So the safety feature remains voluntary. And, as one might expect, that means that some companies install the feature while others do not.

Ford, for example, deserves credit for having made the needed adaptation. Its keyless vehicles have an automatic engine turn off after 30 minutes of idling if the key fob is not in the vehicle.

Toyota, mentioned in the Schaub case above, is of course one of those who do not. Their vehicles have been involved in about half of the deaths and injuries identified in research conducted by The New York Times.

In its defense, Toyota says its keyless ignition system “meets or exceeds all relevant federal safety standards.”

That is true. But it is only true because car companies like Toyota have fought off a higher standard.

As John Uustal, a Florida-based lawyer involved in two keyless ignition cases, observed, “You can’t trust car corporations to police themselves. There’s no adequate punishment.”

The recalcitrance of the car companies is outrageous. According to an NHTSA estimate, the price of compliance would be less than $500,000 a year in software coding for millions of keyless vehicles.

“Preventing even one serious injury over three years would make the proposed rule cost-beneficial,” it said.

It is hard to disagree with that assessment. Indeed, it is hard to fathom the attitude of the car companies that have not made the change.

In general, one can sympathize with corporations that must contend with endlessly proliferating regulations. It’s hard to do business with the government constantly looking over your shoulder, piling rule upon rule — not all of them sensible or fair — and then penalizing you for not following the rules.

But here is a rule that seems eminently sensible and fair. Some companies have already taken it upon themselves voluntarily. With lives at stake, it would also seem sensible and fair to make the rest do so as well, even if it means yet another federal regulation.

In the meantime, car owners with wireless key fobs have to unlearn old habits and be more careful about shutting off power when they leave the vehicle.

Either that, or choose a car that doesn’t have the new technology. Is turning a key with your hand such a big deal? What price convenience?