Do Keyless Ignitions Actually Put Your Car – and Your Life – at Higher Risk?

People are stealing cars...without breaking into them.

car theft from keyless entry

No broken windows. No lengthy process of wedging the door open. No hotwiring, no alarm, no concerned passerby dialing 911. “Beep beep,” unlock, vroom. A thief drives off like the car was theirs to begin with.

These sly car thieves have begun using devices that capture the signal from your key fob—those used to remotely lock and unlock your car’s doors—to gain entry to your car and drive off with no one the wiser.

Car theft has been on the rise in the last few years after a long period of decline. Though keyless ignitions aren’t the sole cause of this upward trend, the ease of stealing a car with a keyless ignition is considered a contributing factor.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, or NICB, partnered with CarMax to conduct a non-scientific test to determine how easily a thief might get away with your car. The NICB tested 35 different makes and models of vehicles and was able to start and drive away with 18 of them—more than half of the vehicles tested.

Unfortunately, theft isn’t the only downside to keyless ignitions…

3 Risks and Dangers of Keyless Ignitions

Whether by accident or on purpose, keyless ignition technology poses other risks and hazards beyond simple vehicle theft.

1. Dude, Where’s My Car? Theft and Disappearing Cars

While we’ve spoken about the potential for thieves to hack and steal the signal from your keyless fob to gain access to your car’s interior, theft isn’t the only thing that can make your car disappear. And no, we’re not talking about a magic act, either.

Cars that require an old-fashioned key in the ignition don’t allow you to remove the key unless you’ve put the car in “park” first.

In contrast, you can get out of a car that uses a keyless ignition without putting the car in “park” or to engage the parking brake. This makes it possible for your car to simply roll away, potentially into a person or another vehicle. Bye, bye, baby (and hello higher insurance premiums).

2. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: A Silent and Deadly Danger

Keyless ignitions are convenient. Get into the car, press the button on the dash, and drive off. But what happens if you park your car (and actually put the car into “park”) and then walk away with the engine still running? Such a thing is made even more possible with how quiet some cars are now, as well.

Not realizing your car hasn’t been properly turned off can result in your home being flooded with deadly carbon monoxide. In fact, between 2009 and 2016, 19 deaths have been “specifically attributed to keyless ignition vehicles.”

3. The Frustration and Inconvenience of a Dead or Lost Fob

There’s nothing convenient about a keyless ignition if your fob is dead or lost. You can replace the battery (if you have a spare or are lucky enough to be near a store that sells them), unlock the door remotely (if you have roadside assistance in place already), or hope your fob includes a backup key.

While some car models do provide a way of entering and starting a car with a dead fob, not having your fob at all is even more inconvenient and will probably result in a call to AAA or a locksmith—and the surprising cost of a replacement key fob.

keyless ignitions in cars

What is the Industry’s Solution to the Dangers of Keyless Ignitions?

Security: Legislators have introduced regulations to protect the safety and security of consumers and their cars. Manufacturers have worked to further encrypt their keyless fobs, “but ultimately there is no 100% guarantee for security.” For now, you can store your fobs in “Faraday cage sleeves” which (though they sound way cooler than they are) block the radio signal and the ability for thieves to intercept it.

Safety Measures: When it comes to preventing carbon monoxide poisoning, some cars will alert you that they’ve been left on and idle for awhile by sounding an alert inside the car’s interior, while others will honk the horn. A lawsuit was filed against 10 car manufacturers in an effort to require automatic shut-off functions in cars that use keyless ignitions, though not all are in favor of such an option.

As for the danger of your car rolling away? It’s on you. The NHTSA recommends reading your manual, making sure your car is in “park,” and engaging the parking brake.

3 Alternatives to Keyless Ignitions

Phone apps and additional physical hardware are alternatives to replicate the safety features we’ve grown accustomed to by directly combating some of the vulnerabilities caused by keyless ignitions.

1. “Siri, Start My Car”

Though our phones’ virtual assistants aren’t quite there just yet, phone apps are compelling alternatives to keyless entry and ignition systems. Volvo has been testing a smartphone-based app for its cars in a bid to replicate keyless entry and ignition through Bluetooth.

Independent apps and systems like Viper SmartStart and VOYO are also available to lock, unlock, and start your car from your phone, without the need for keys or a fob.

2. Kill Theft with a Kill Switch

Despite its badass name, a kill switch is nothing more than a simple device with an on/off toggle. Kill switches interrupt a car engine’s combustion process and prevent a thief getting away with your vehicle. You install the switch somewhere in your car – out of sight from a thief’s eyes – such as beneath the driver’s seat or in your glove box.

This gives you the power to flip the kill switch and start your car as you would normally by pressing the keyless ignition button. The thief would first have to find the switch – a potentially time-consuming or fruitless step that would likely deter them from picking your car to steal.

3. Start Your Car Remotely—While It’s Still Locked

Aftermarket remote starters are systems that allow you to start your car from a distance, without the need to unlock your doors. In the midst of a snowstorm and dreading the biting cold of your car’s interior while you’re waiting for it to warm up? With a remote starter, you can start the car and get the heat blasting so you’re nice and toasty as soon as you sit down.

Remote starters have long adopted the idea of keyless ignitions without many of the same downsides. And since your car can be started while it’s still locked, there’s less potential for it to be stolen—even if it’s just waiting to be driven away.

Plus: The Effect of Keyless Ignitions on Insurance Rates

We asked Ava Lynch, a licensed insurance agent here at The Zebra, how keyless ignitions impact car insurance rates. While there’s no hard data currently available, Ava said that insurance companies may consider a car’s keyless ignition as an additional risk, which might cost you more on insurance.

Why? Keyless ignitions have lead to an increase in vehicle theft and even a number of deaths, which could mean a rise in insurance claims and a resultant increase in rates. So is this happening?

The insurance industry can sometimes be a slow-moving beast so it may take years for underwriters to analyze the available data. If they do determine there is a correlation between cars with keyless ignitions and increase in claims, you may be on the hook for paying a slightly higher premium to offset the increased exposure to your insurance company.

Keyless ignitions are only one of the new technologies used in connected cars. It’s understood that the tech may experience some “growing pains,” as with most technological innovations, but manufacturers, regulatory bodies, and insurers must work out the kinks to develop solutions and strategies for deterring and preventing the increased theft and dangers caused by keyless ignitions.