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GM 'Switchgate' could mean the end of ignition keys

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Molly Riley/AP/File

(Read caption) The ignition switch of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt in Alexandria, Va. GM's ignition switch fiasco may hasten the end of ignition switches in favor of push-button starts.

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General Motors' ignition switch problems have been linked to at least 13 deaths and numerous injuries and complaints. The company has recalled nearly 2.6 million vehicles, and it's facing a slew of lawsuits from customers, plus investigations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Justice Department.

But as terrible news as all that news may be, it could have one positive outcome: the end of the ignition key.

IS THE END IN SIGHT?

As Bloomberg notes, GM's CEO, Mary Barra, recently told a Congressional committee that the "Switchgate" recall may force GM to ditch ignition keys altogether in favor of push-button systems. If so, the move would end decades of complaints from consumers.

How many complaints have been lodged? Its hard to say, because for the first two decades of the ignition key's history, there wasn't an efficient way to track those complaints.

However, Bloomberg approximates at least 18,000 have been filed since NHTSA was formed in 1970, peaking at more than 2000 in the year 2000. Those complaints resulted in roughly 21 million vehicles being recalled.

It's worth noting here that GM's current ignition switch problem isn't unusual -- in fact, it's more-or-less par for the course. Since ignition keys became standard features on cars in the late 1940s, consumers have complained about cars being hard to start, cars starting on their own, and cars switching off with no warning.

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It's also worth mentioning that GM doesn't hold the record for ignition-switch complaints. That dubious honor goes to the Ford Focus, which received over 2,000 complaints from owners during the first five years of this century. The problem seemed to be that when the vehicle was parked, drivers often had trouble removing the key. Though it was a significant problem, Ford never issued a recall because it wasn't a safety hazard, just an inconvenience. 

(That said, Ford also holds the record for the most vehicles recalled for ignition switch glitches: a cumulative 8.8 million, well ahead of GM's 5.5 million.)

BETTER TECHNOLOGY?

The push-start ignition isn't perfect. Because it triggers from a fob that owners carry in their pockets, drivers may need to be reminded to turn off their vehicles. (Also, that fob means that our keychains aren't going to get any lighter or slimmer in the immediate future.) And in emergency situations, turning off a key can be much faster than holding down the start/stop button for up to three seconds.   

Our unofficial office poll reveals that, while many of us have a nostalgic fondness for keys, we know that on the tech front, electrical (i.e. start buttons) trumps mechanical (i.e. keys) more often than not. For some, though, it'll take a bit of getting used to.

[h/t Brian Henderson]

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