The big turn on: How car start procedures have evolved

PHOTO: Motorist

Keyless entry and start are features that were once the reserve of premium vehicles.

The technology that goes into the system used to be economically unviable to fit to mass-market cars. As the R&D progressively got paid off, the hardware eventually became low-cost enough that even economy cars now come equipped with the option.

PHOTO: Motorist

A sign that something has become truly pervasive is when the aftermarket comes up with their own solution/interpretation of the equipment. The push button start is here to stay then.

Or is it?

The Key Barrel

This isn’t even the first time in history that cars relied on a button to start - when cars initially transitioned from hand cranks to starter motors, manufacturers actually fitted push buttons on the dashboards of the early cars.

Their only purpose was to energise the starter motor. Car security was taken care of by rudimentary door locks and its accompanying keys.

What this also means is that if you can circumvent the car locks (let’s be honest, it’s the early days of motoring, and manufacturing technology wasn’t all that advanced), you are literally able to start the car and drive it away.

This can prove bothersome if you are a car owner, and are in urgent need to drive somewhere.

Conversely, there’s also nothing stopping you from simply nicking your neighbour’s car -  it’s the 1940s, CCTVs aren’t a thing yet.

PHOTO: Motorist 

There are early cars with key barrel ignition (Cadillac Type 51 for instance), but they were the exceptions, rather than the norm.

That all changed, when automakers discovered a cost effective manner to incorporate ignition key barrels into their newer offerings, which then allowed the keys that unlocked the cars to serve as the implement that is also used to start your vehicle’s engine.

The near-universal adoption means that the key barrel as a means to fire up an engine has more than earned its place in the history books.

The Start Button

As wireless technology advanced, automakers started to realise that they could have a reliable way of allowing its users to start their cars’ engines, without the need to first slot a key into the ignition, then turning it to start.

This was the dawn of the keyless entry and start era, with certain luxury car models being equipped with these features from as early as the start of the 21st century.

PHOTO: Motorist

Again, as automakers and OE parts suppliers recoup the original R&D costs of keyless go systems, the push button start gradually became mainstream, utilised by even the most humble of econoboxes.

These systems allow their users to walk up to the car, and have it automatically unlock without the need to reach for the radio transmitter. All of this was made possible by developments in RFID technology.

PHOTO: Motorist

But with the advent of EVs, even the start button’s days may be numbered.

EV Start Up Process

There’s no need for a button or a switch to trigger an electrical starter to kick start the combustion process. Forward momentum in an EV is achieved when the electric motor is energised.

When stationary, voltage just isn’t supplied to the motor.

It makes sense therefore, to eliminate the start button, integrating it into the gear selector rocker, with ‘reverse’ simplifying causing the circuit to reverse the polarity of the motor, allowing it to move backwards.

PHOTO: Motorist

In fact, in this drive to further simplify the driving process, even the car key maybe getting the axe, with manufacturers opting to create feature-packed apps or even key cards as replacements

With EVs being adopted en-masse, we are approaching an era in which the start button's days are numbered.

I'm a firm believer in EVs not aping the behaviour of their ICE cousins (that's why I leave regenerative braking on maximum and turn the creep functionality off in all the EV press cars I've been given), and if there's no need for a start button, it makes sense for manufacturers to get rid of it.

PHOTO: Motorist

An all-new starting experience may actually be just round the corner, and it is looking like the start button ignition may eventually be relegated to the history books, just like their key barrel predecessors.

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This article was first published in Motorist.