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How can you tell when progress is no longer being made? That’s easy. It is when something simple and inexpensive that works really well – and lasts essentially forever – is replaced by something that is complex and expensive, that doesn’t last very long and provides no meaningful functional improvement over what it replaced.

Keyless/push-button ignition, for instance.

This system began – as most such things do – as a gadget rather than improvement. Instead of a key made of metal one inserted into a lock and then turned to start the car’s engine, a button you pushed – and a fob you held. At first, it seemed very “cool” and also “futuristic,” while putting a key into a lock seemed so old fashioned.

But what has been gained? And what has it cost?

The “gains” can be measured in the second or two one doesn’t spend inserting a key into a lock. And in the not having to find the key, in order to insert it into the lock.

And the costs?

First, the big one – of the fob itself vs. the key. A key is a piece of metal, cut to fit the lock. It costs less than $10 to cut one – or replace one. A fob can cost more than $100 to replace. Even the “inexpensive” replacements costs many times as much as it costs to get a new key cut.

And it is more likely you will have to get (and pay for) a new fob, sooner. They just stop working, being electronic things. And they do not like being run through the wash – also because they are electronic things. The can also be crushed under foot or otherwise physically damaged. It is much harder to hurt a physical key.

Replacement costs are the second cost of keyless/push-button systems  – one that metal keys rarely impose because they are not electronic things and so can be run through the wash. Which doesn’t hurt them. In fact, it helps them – by making them cleaner and shinier than they were. Being simple pieces of metal, keys never stop working. Eventually, you might wear one out. But this typically happens only after decades of use. (I have the original keys that came with my 1976 Trans-Am almost 50 years ago and they work as well in 2023 as they did back in 1976.)

The key – and the lock it fits into – are also discrete (as opposed to discreet) devices, meaning they are not interconnected with/dependent upon anything else. If the key breaks or wears out, you can easily and inexpensively get a replacement cut – and at any hardware store. As opposed to going to the dealer to get the code/have the new fob paired with your device.

If the lock the key fits into breaks – and they do, eventually – all that needs replacing is the lock. A simple – discrete – mechanical cylinder that’s also easily and inexpensively replaced.

A fob wirelessly connects to the sensor that enables the button you push to send the signal to the computer to start the engine. While electronic components themselves are inexpensive to manufacture, proprietary electronics you’re forced to buy – when you need a replacement – often are not. And you may need computers/diagnostic equipment you don’t own and don’t have the knowledge/training to use, in which case it’s a trip to the dealer – and we all know how much that costs.

So, what has been gained for all this cost?

You save a couple of seconds and you have the minor convenience of not having to insert a key into a lock and turn it, in order to start the car. This is not progress. It is regression, in the name of “progress.”

To understand what progress was, one must go back about four decades to the decade (the 1980s) when mechanical carburetors were superseded by electronic fuel injectors. The benefits were vast, the chief ones being almost no routine maintenance needed, much easier starting (with little-to-no “warming up”needed), greatly improved drivability and much lower fuel consumption as well as much more efficient combustion (and lower emissions of actual pollutants that fouled the environment, as opposed to the “emissions” of inert, non-reactive gasses that hurt the feelings of neurotics).

It was during this same era – some 40 years ago – that transmissions (both manuals and automatics) got overdrive gears, another example of meaningful progress in that much was improved at very little cost. It was no longer necessary to choose between a car with snappy acceleration – that had a more aggressive final drive ratio – and one that got better gas mileage – because it had a “highway” final drive ratio – but was sluggish when accelerating.

Performance cars now got gas mileage comparable to economy cars when they didn’t have transmissions with overdrive gearing – and economy cars got even more economical.

But such progress has largely been arrested because gadgets have replaced innovation – chiefly because it is easier, cheaper and more profitable for the manufacturers to bedazzle people with electronica than it is to R&D meaningful improvements into cars. And also because government regulations serve to stifle meaningful innovation for the sake of complying with whatever the regs are. It’s less work and since everyone else is doing the same, there’s less incentive to do anything differently.

And that’s one reason why things are regressing rather than progressing.

. . .

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  1. Push-button start is in my three vehicles that are all
    10+ years old. I’ve never had any problems,
    or expense, and value the convenience.

    Two GM vehicles I owned both had problems with
    the key in the steering-wheel column. Steering wheel
    locked, leaving me stranded, had to be towed.
    Fairly recently, Camaro engines died – not too
    safe on the highway – with ignition key troubles.

    Gentleman, Start Your Engines – without keys

    • I’m never going back to a keyed ignition if I can help it.
      Push button start and keyless entry has always worked flawlessly for me.

    • Gentlemen start your engines. A great Brent era Dead tune.

      Lyrics By: John Barlow
      Music By: Brent Mydland
      It’s three AM in the combat zone
      Gentlemen, start your engines
      You can close this bar, but baby I ain’t going
      Gentlemen, start your engines
      If you lock up the whiskey, give me gasoline
      I got a seven grand redline on the black machine
      The dead can do my sleeping, if you know what I mean
      Gentlemen, start your engines

      Got a little girl here in a pinafore
      Gentlemen, start your engines
      She’s gonna do us all and then beg for more, Gentlemen, start your engines
      It’s dark outside, but it’s darker within
      Check the back of my jacket just to see my grin
      They don’t write poems about the state that I’m in
      Gentlemen, start your engines

      One of these days I’m gonna pull myself together
      Soon as I finish tearing myself apart
      Let me tell you, honey, there’s some mighty stormy weather
      Rolling round the caverns of my heart

      When the police come you better let them in
      Gentlemen, start your engines
      Don’t forget to tell them what a sport I’ve been
      Gentlemen, start your engines
      I got a head full of vintage TNT
      They’re gonna blow me up instead of burying me
      If you don’t like trouble, better leave me be
      Gentlemen, start your engines

      Ge-ge-ge-gentlemen, start your engines
      Ge-ge-ge-gentlemen, start
      Ge-ge-ge-gentlemen, start
      Ge-ge-ge-gentlemen, start your engines

      Like the Devil’s Mustangs I’ve been ridden hell for leather
      Put away wet and angry in the dark
      Let me tell you honey, there’s some mighty stormy weather
      Rolling round the caverns of my heart

  2. Re: innovation.
    IMO, they’ve reached product maturation. For example, gm innovated good independent front suspension on trucks (and no, fords sucked and why it’s gone, it was just marketing/propaganda that it was good). Eventually Ford and Dodge redesigned theirs and were really good, better than GM. then GM copied those. Now they’re practically all the same. What else is there to do? When that happens, they have to change the ‘thing’, the rules, completely. As they have been for a long time, or a 60’s VW Beetle would still be sold, and lots would buy them.

  3. Something else that was touted as “progress” was electrical smart meters to replace old analog meters that have lasted for DECADES with no problems. However, smart meters only have an average life span of a few years, and they can and have been used to collect private information on people who have them at their homes, and there have also been numerous stories of smart meters exploding or causing health problems for people, but for years government and certain electric companies essentially told us they were “Safe and Effective!” Does that sound familiar?

    • Our “beloved” (cough, cough) electric company was way behind the curve in switching our analog metres over, but they finally got around to it a few years ago. By that time, I was well-read about them from other states who had already taken the plunge. I am very glad that when they did the switch (without our consent, too), that my metre is on a power pole away from the house. For I have heard of people’s homes burning down because of said metre. When I mentioned something to the lady at the office-when I was paying the bill-she had NO clue. I mean, none, where the health and safety hazards were concerned. She just gushed about how great it was to be able to monitor my usage in live time. WTF?? Since when was that any of her business as to when I was home or not? Also, everyone in the borough is finally beginning to figure out that their bills have increased quite a bit since said metres were installed. Coincidence? Probably not.

  4. It’s more expensive to the end user. For the manufacturer it’s cheaper.
    Up through the 1980s a manufacturer used the same ignition switch on every car they made more or less. this could pay off the tooling for all the mechanical parts. Then styling and anti-theft, the need for remote locks, etc came in. more tooling. Then there’s cutting keys and keeping track of key cuts and such in the factory.

    Fobs are now standard across cars, maybe three/four parts. No special handling. Automated security number programming. All the electronics are off the shelf components. No up front investment. Switch buttons are easy and cheap to dress up differently. No up front costs really to speak of, lower manufacturing costs, etc and so on. They save some but on the flip side the service parts now cost a fortune. because they are electronics because they need programming. A lot is pure mark up but what is cheap and automated in the factory requires human time on the service side.

    • It would be pretty simple to make key fob systems which can program new key fobs themselves. Put in a working FOB, push a button somewhere or go into a menu, and accept a new fob. All you need is to have the car generate a secret code and write it to the key.

      This would be much easier for customers, because you could have aftermarket FOB’s or simply buy generics at the dealership and program them yourselves. It would cost a little bit of extra engineering, and be great for customers, but bad for dealer service departments.

  5. Some new vehicles that have come in for service at my shop (inspections, oils changes& tires) don’t even have door lock/unlock controls at all. The Body Module locks all doors when you pt it in gear, and they stay locked, until you put the transmission in park. No buttons on the door, no manual release, not even pulling the door handle countless times. You are locked in like a child in the back seat. It makes certain service procedures extremely difficult if not impossible. Scrolling through menus may or may not help because a lot of these “features” are not able to be cancelled. If you are in a collision and lose electric power, you may just get to bleed out or even burn alive in your 4-wheel coffin. At best you will be a prisoner as other vehicles compact you into a sardine in a 50 car pile-up on an icy Interstate.

    • ‘The Body Module locks all doors when you put it in gear, and they stay locked, until you put the transmission in park. No buttons on the door, no manual release.’ — gtc

      Every year out west, people drive onto concrete aprons crossing seasonal washes and streams, and get swept away … even if the water is only a foot deep. Obviously the vehicle is in gear when it floats off.

      What happens when rescuers try to extract them, but the doors are locked under Body Module control?

      This ‘feature’ is grossly dangerous and unacceptable. One hopes some enterprising tort lawyer sues the mfrs to their knees, along with the apparatchiks who wrote these stupid regs to ‘protect the children.’

  6. I once owned a Chrysler LeBaron (hangs head in shame) with one of the first digital dashboards. Needless to say it broke rather quickly and I sold it shortly thereafter. A friend also had a Chrysler (can’t remember the model) with an built-in on-board nag. “Your door is ajar, your seatbelt is unfastened” etc. That broke fairly quickly as well – every time he opened the driver’s door, the thing would say every phrase it had.
    But at least we had other choices back then.

  7. There’s an illusion that these fobs are more secure than a key. This is wrong. It is a farily simple hack to record the wireless signal handshake between the vehicle and fob, then “play” it back at a later time. Yes, the attack requires some preplanning to make the initial capture but most people follow a very routine pattern. You might not be able to drive off, but it draws much less attention than a smash-and-grab. Most semi-opertunistic theves aren’t going to take the entire vehicle anyway, grand theft auto attracts too much attention.

  8. I am very happy that my 2023 Ford F150 XL has a keyed igmition and did not come with this crapola. Sometimes less is more.

  9. If it ain’t digital, it’s no good. In spite of the fact that the 61 David Brown tractor I parked 10 years ago still had the original starter that worked, an original keyed ignition that worked, and an original diesel engine that worked. True, hardly anything else worked, which is why it got parked. I’d bet $100 that with clean fuel and oil, and a new battery it would start right up today. Meanwhile, digital electronics do well to go 10 years. Even if the software isn’t impossible to update.

  10. I think a lot of this electronic gadgetry is also a sneaky way to keep selling cars as automotive technology in materials and mechanicals advanced to the point where cars routinely last more than 10 years and 100K miles. First, because you’ve got to have the latest and greatest gizmos; and second, because once they do break, it’s cheaper to buy a new car than fix them.

    • I think the manufacturers realized they screwed up when they began making reliable, long lasting cars in the late nineties; no need to replace a vehicle that still works well. Certainly corrected that “problem” now, none of this electronic crapola will last beyond ten years or so.

  11. They messed the keys up as well with the resistor antitheft added. Growing up an a farm, many cars/trucks back in the day had cranks up front. Some people discovered there was no ‘safety’ neutral interlocks!

    Then the cars/trucks had foot starts just above the accelerator that was physically connected to the starter. Turn on a switch, press the spring loaded start interlock with your foot and you were off.

    Then they went to a on/off switch and a start button, then to a keyed switch with integrated start function.

    Harley Davidson now has a fob and a push button on the handlebars. On EVs you just log in like any computer.

  12. The thing I really miss about a normal car key is being able to have a spare in my wallet. If I lose my keys as long as I have my wallet I can get home. Beats 50-$100.00 for pop-a-lock.
    Replacing key fobs is expensive and a hassle. I’ve found most locksmiths can get and program them cheaper than dealers, sometimes you have to wait a couple days if it’s not a stock item.

  13. You want a key? What key? You don’t need no stinkin’ key. Can’t have one even if you want one, so there.

    You turn the key to the on position, creates contact for flow of direct current of electricity from the battery to engage the starter to turn the ring gear so the engine can run like it should. Gotta have movement to have an engine, spark to the spark plugs has to be there. More than one cylinder, you need a distributor and a timing chain. There is a starter button to push so the crank can crank by using the battery-powered starter.

    No battery, just push the crank handle with your foot and your horseless carriage starts then too. Don’t need no stinkin’ key then either, nor a fob.

    Kick starters to the rescue!

    Simple engineering works the best.

    The mother of all black markets is war. Looks that way, expensive too.

  14. Although you did have to insert a key and turn the ignition on, a push button starter is ancient tech. The first time I saw one, I said to self WTF? I thought we worked through that? But you can’t sell a smart phone without lots of gadgets and “pretty” lights. Even if it’s a four wheeled smart phone.
    Convenience is the new religion in products. It seems the cost of that “convenience” never enters the conversation, except Eric’s conversation. My son got a rude awakening to it. One of the lift cylinders on the back door of his Rav 4 failed. Over two hundred to replace it. I asked him if the “convenience” of not actually putting his hand out and raising the door was worth 200? No comment. Which I assume meant “No”.
    I briefly owned an ’08 Miata with the “smart” fob that let you unlock doors and start the car without a key. You could even roll down the windows as you approached to let the car cool. It was used, and only one of the fobs actually worked. Went to the only source for a new one, the dealer, and it was near 300 to replace it. And no, I could not get a simple chip key to replace it. Even though the car did have switches and locks that would operate with one. To get the key, I had to buy the fob, for 300.


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