The first time I started a car by pressing a button, it felt too easy and convenient — like I had somehow stumbled into a tax bracket I don’t belong in. “You’re telling me,” I thought, “that I can just leave my keys in my pocket, and the car will let me get in and drive around?”
The push-button ignition is one of those buttons that doesn’t really add any new functionality over the thing it’s replacing (in this case, the ignition system that has you insert and turn a key). It exists solely for the sake of convenience, a job that it excels at. You get in the car, press down on the brake pedal and a button, and you’re ready to drive. It’s barely more difficult than unlocking your phone.
It’s also, for most of us, anyway, the most raw power we can generate with just our fingertips. Flipping a switch on a surge protector could give you access to nearly 2,000 watts. That’s not a small sum, but pushing a button to start a car gives you the power to move yourself, your family, luggage, and, oh yeah, a machine that weighs thousands of pounds at highway speeds.
The actual buttons themselves are relatively standard across the auto industry, which is surprising considering how different regular old keys can be. Every one I’ve seen has been circular, located somewhere to the right of the steering wheel, and has lighting to indicate that your car is on. There are some safety measures — many cars guard against accidental starts by requiring a simultaneous press of the brake pedal. Personally, it feels like just the right mix of convenience and manual process — the foot / hand coordination makes it feel like you’re doing something, but you don’t have the annoyance of fiddling with a key.
When I started writing this, I was under the impression that push-button start was a relatively modern feature, but its origins go back over a century. One of the first cars with a button-based ignition was the 1912 Cadillac Model 30, which had you press a button to activate the electric starter that replaced the engine crank. Of course, this was still pretty early days for “motor cars,” so the convenience factor was sort of diminished by the few other steps (like setting the engine’s fuel / air ratio and spark timing) you had to do. Still, it feels fair to describe the Model 30 as having a push-button start. It was also keyless, not because it wirelessly communicated with a fob the way modern cars do (obviously), but because there just… wasn’t a key at all.
At some point, though, people realized that there should probably be a way to prevent just anybody from starting up your car. There was a period when cars had keys to unlock the ignition switch, but you weren’t actually turning on the car with the key. By the 1950s, though, many cars were coming equipped with the turnkey ignition system most of us are familiar with today, supplanting the system of buttons and levers. And that’s mostly the way it stayed for quite a while until someone decided it was high time to bring the button back and all the keyless convenience that came with it.
Mercedes-Benz usually gets credit for popularizing the feature with the KeylessGo system in the 1998 S-Class (I asked the company if it considered itself to be the inventor of the modern push to start system but didn’t hear back). While that car came with a somewhat standard key you could turn to start the car, you could option it out to include a keyless system that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern car. As long as you had a special plastic card on you, you could walk up to the car, get in it, and turn it on by pressing a button on the top of the gear shifter.
For a while, push to start was a luxury feature. That S-Class started at $72,515, which is around $130K in today’s money. If you remember the slew of songs in the 2010s from the likes of 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, Lil Baby, and Wiz Khalifa that featured lyrics flexing about cars that don’t have keys or that started with a button, that’s why. (Khalifa references his push-button ignition in two songs).
While the feature isn’t as exotic here in 2022, it’s not exactly ubiquitous yet; looking at the 2022 models of the top 10 most-sold cars in the US, only half of them come with the feature as standard. If you buy the lowest-end model of the Toyota RAV4, Camry, or Tacoma, a Honda CR-V, or a Ford F-150, you’ll be getting a traditional turning key to start it up with. (The base F-150’s exclusion of push-to-start isn’t necessarily a surprise given that the truck doesn’t even come with cruise control — yes, I’m serious.) However, by the time you’ve moved up two or three trims, all the vehicles ditch the ignition cylinder for a button.
When I got my first car with push-button start in 2020, I found it pretty confusing for the first few months (probably because I’d only ever driven decades-old cars at that point). I’d press the button a split second before the brake, eliciting annoying beeps from my car and the message “To START press brake.” I’ve grown to love it, though, and now it feels downright archaic to have to take the key out of my pocket and twist it in the ignition whenever I’m driving another car. I will admit, though, that for a month or two, I definitely tried to get out of the car (a 2016 Ford Fusion Energi) without fully turning it off, prompting it to yell at me again.
This does bring up a problem, though: as with many conveniences, push-button starts have come with a cost. Several dozen people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning or uncontrolled moving vehicles after they left their cars running, assuming that they would turn off after they got out with the key fob in tow. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even has a page warning people to be extra 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 think about it — and vehicle manufacturers didn’t consider the deadly repercussions of that. In 2021, several senators proposed laws that would mandate features to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning and rollaways, but so far, the acts haven’t been passed.
Many manufacturers have started to come up with systems to prevent further deaths. But the push to start button’s days may already be numbered, thanks to companies that are pushing the convenience envelope even further. Many luxury electric vehicles — most notably Teslas — forego a manual startup process altogether. You get in, select your drive mode, and the car’s ready to whisk you away.
While plenty of EVs from more traditional automakers like Ford, Hyundai, and Toyota have push-button start, there are signs that the buttonless startup could already be trickling down; Volvo’s XC40 Recharge automatically turns itself on and off, and while Volkswagen’s ID 4 has a start / stop button, using it is completely optional according to the car’s manual. It’s more or less the same tech; the cars authenticate you via a fob, card, or even your smartphone, but they just activate or deactivate the motors when you use the gear selector, rather than making it a separate step.
As I’ve said before, I’m a bit of a sucker for ceremony, so I think it’ll be a shame if push to start is completely replaced. Thankfully, if that is the future, it could take quite a while to arrive, given how slowly buttons have spread since their resurgence. Until then, the button will continue to act as a little luxury, giving those lucky enough to have one less thing to fumble around with while getting in the car for their morning commute.
Correction May 31st, 7:02PM ET: the original version of this article incorrectly referred to carbon monoxide as CO2. Its actual chemical formula is CO. We regret the error.