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Why I Don’t Trust Push-Button Start in Cars

Power start button inside of the 2023 Chevy Bolt EV
Justin Duino / Review Geek
Push-button start adds to the complexity of a car's electrical system, and it creates new opportunities for failure, recalls, or trips to the dealership. I don't trust this feature because I'm afraid that it'll cost me extra time and money.

It’s getting hard to find a car without push-button start. And while I understand the popularity of this feature, keyless ignition isn’t very exciting to me. It increases the complexity of a vehicle, meaning that it can make electrical repairs, recalls, and key replacements much more frustrating.

Before we get into this, I should clarify that push start and keyless entry are extremely convenient. This technology may also reduce car theft—as a Kia owner, I definitely see the appeal here. My concerns mainly revolve around reliability, self-sufficiency, and cost.

What Happens When There’s a Problem?

Someone handing a key fob to another person.
koonsiri boonnak/Shutterstock.com

At a very basic level, keyless and keyed starter systems aren’t all that different. Whether you push a button or twist a key, you’re completing a circuit between your car’s battery and starter motor. This gets the engine going, at which point, the circuit to the starter motor is no longer needed—a push-button car will automatically stop cranking, but in a keyed ignition, you simply let the key return to its “on” position.

Both of these starter systems rely on some digital components, at least in modern vehicles. If your car has an engine immobilizer (and all cars sold in the U.S. after 1998 do), it won’t start without an authentic key or key fob (or a smartphone, in some cars). A transponder within your key or key fob is used for verification.

This is just a basic overview of how a starter system works in gas vehicles. And already, it’s clear that a lot of things can go wrong. Physical components wear out, wiring can be damaged, and computers don’t always work like they should. Other parts of the car, if damaged or poorly maintained, can also prevent the engine from turning over.

Some of these problems can be fixed at home, if necessary. And the smallest problems aren’t too difficult to get around—sometimes you have to crank an engine for a long time to get it going (and hopefully address the issue when you have time). But this is where I start to get wary of push-button starters; they’re similar to traditional starters, yet they require several new components that can break.

For example, a push-button starter needs to “know” when to stop cranking the engine. There are a few different ways to do this (some cars wait for the engine to hit a certain RPM), but regardless of the implementation, this process requires extra electrical components. And when you add more stuff to a car, there’s more stuff that can go wrong.

Not to mention, keyless ignitions require robust safety features. Drivers may leave their engine running in the garage, for example, or exit their vehicle before it’s parked—these instances of “forgetfulness” have been linked to several deaths, so carmakers are eager to build new safety features for their keyless ignition vehicles. Unfortunately, these safety precautions add more points of failure to the vehicle.

There’s also the key fob itself. Some cars only have a keyless ignition, so if you lose or break your key fob (by dropping it in a pool, or whatever), you’re stuck in a bit of a pickle. These keyless ignition fobs cost hundreds of dollars to replace at the dealership.

Long and Expensive Repairs

A mechanic looking under the hood of a car.

Modern vehicles are extremely complex, and it’s mainly due to digital components. An engine may stop working because a tiny sensor failed, for example. This complexity becomes very obvious when something goes wrong—car repairs are frustratingly slow and expensive.

Now, diagnosing a problem isn’t too difficult. Before a mechanic takes apart a car, they use sophisticated equipment to pinpoint where a problem is coming from. Even if a mechanic ends up with an obscure error code, they’re usually experienced enough to get a general idea of what’s wrong. (There are exceptions. For example, some problems can only be identified using specific diagnostic tools, which you may only find at your dealership.)

The real difficulty comes after diagnosing a problem. New cars are hard to take apart. And electrical components like sensors, wires, and circuit boards, are rarely repaired. Instead, they are simply replaced—automotive repairs often descend into an endless loop of “replace this part, see if it works.” It’s usually a cost-effective option, but it can also be expensive, and you may need to wait for parts to be ordered.

This process can (but doesn’t always) add to the time that your car spends in the shop. It can also inflate your bill. Not only are you paying for extra labor, but you have to pay for replacement electrical components. Even a simple wiring harness can cost a ridiculous amount of money. (I should note that this sort of repair work can be very quick and cost-effective, but it depends on the problem, the accuracy of the diagnostics, and the skills of the mechanic.)

Normally, I’d argue that long and expensive repairs are just part of owning a car. Today’s vehicles are complicated because they’re safer, more enjoyable, and more environmentally friendly than they were in the past.

But keyless ignition systems are, in my opinion, a small luxury. And if a keyless ignition system were to fail for some reason, this small luxury could increase the time and cost of repairs. I don’t see it as a great trade-off.

On the other hand, keyless ignition could pay off when it’s time to sell your car. Not only is it an expensive trim option, but it’s probably the future of the automotive world. Even if you run into a problem with your keyless ignition system (and most people won’t), an increased trade-in value may be worth the headache.

Carmakers Love Push-Button Start for a Reason

Engine start stop button in a car
Hannah Stryker / Review Geek

As I’ve repeatedly mentioned throughout this article, push start is a major convenience. It also (supposedly) reduces car theft, and it may help your car retain some resale value. I don’t blame anyone for enjoying keyless ignition; I’m just explaining why it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Anyway, here’s something to chew on—how do carmakers benefit from this technology? Obviously, keyless ignition is a popular feature that increases the price of a car. Push-button start is a good way to make money. But are there any additional benefits for car manufacturers?

One of the “hidden” benefits, which I touched on earlier, is that push start might get you into the dealership. Even if a keyless ignition system is working fine, it may be affected by a recall, or you may lose your key fob (which costs a lot of money to replace). In either case, you have to visit the dealership, where you’ll be encouraged to pay for maintenance (oil change, new filters, tire rotation, etc) and pestered about vehicle trade-in deals.

I’m not saying that push-button start is some evil ploy. It’s just a cool feature that customers enjoy. But it’s one of those complicated things that may, in some cases, force you to visit the dealership. And I hate visiting the dealership.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is the News Editor for Review Geek, where he covers breaking stories and manages the news team. He joined Life Savvy Media as a freelance writer in 2018 and has experience in a number of topics, including mobile hardware, audio, and IoT. Read Full Bio »