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Summary
  • The push-button start is a type of ignition system that lets you automatically start the engine.
  • Push-button starts enable remote locking, minimize road accidents, and help prevent car theft.
  • Unfortunately, push-button starts are not perfect. The car will keep running even if without the fob, the car can be turned off while driving, and replacement fobs are pricy.

In recent years, cars with a push-button start have become more common. However, owners of older vehicles might find it confusing to start their cars without turning a key. Let’s take a look at the origins of the push-button start ignition system to understand how to use it.

What Is a Push-Button Start?

Also called keyless ignition, the push-button start is a type of ignition system that lets you  automatically start the engine. It replaces the traditional keyed ignition in older vehicles.

The push-button start system has the same job as the keyed ignition system in older vehicles. First, the keyless ignition starts the engine. Second and more importantly, it serves as a deterrent against car thieves.

close up shot of an engine start button
Also called keyless ignition, the push-button start is a type of ignition system that lets you automatically start the engine.

When Did Push To Start Cars Come Out?

The idea for a push-button start showed up as early as 1912, when Cadillac released its Model 30. This automobile introduced an innovative electrical system with an electric starter, the first of its kind. In comparison, earlier vehicles required you to crank the engine by hand until they fired up.

Starting the 1912 Cadillac Model 30 was as easy as pressing the button for its electric starter. You also didn’t need a key because cars back then didn’t use a key-based ignition system.

More than 80 years later, Mercedes Benz introduced the keyless-start and keyless-go systems in the 1998 Mercedes Benz S-Class. The first modern keyless ignition system that entered service on a large scale, Mercedes Benz‘s innovative system made it possible for you to start the engine without a key. If you wanted to do it manually or the push-button start developed an issue, the S-class also came with a traditional key-based ignition.

How a Push-Button Start Works

Keyless ignition requires you to have your car’s key fob on hand. In the 1998 Mercedes Benz S-class, the fob was a card-shaped device called a smart key card. Nowadays, most fobs look like stubby remote control devices.

No matter its shape, a key fob constantly transmits a radio signal. This signal is the anti-theft code that’s unique for each vehicle. The fob’s transmission only reaches a certain distance.

To use the push-button start system, get close enough to your car so that the key fob’s signal can reach it. Once you’ve entered your vehicle, put your foot on the brake pedal. When you engage the main brake, the push-button start will allow the engine to start.

How Is a Push-Button Start Different From an Ignition Switch?

The ignition switch is a component that’s responsible for starting electrical systems, such as the ignition system that fires up the engine. It works with the ignition/security system of a particular vehicle, whether it’s an older keyed ignition or the increasingly widespread keyless start.

In cars with a keyed ignition system, the key’s teeth must line up with the ignition lock cylinder. If the teeth match the cylinder, the ignition switch can turn to start the vehicle.

The key’s teeth must line up with the ignition lock cylinder. If they do, the ignition switch can turn to start the vehicle.

Anthony Harlin, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

For cars with a push-button start, the device compares the anti-theft key code with the one stored in its memory.

Older vehicles use a mechanical switch in their ignition system. In modern machines, the ignition switch is an electronic device that works like a starter relay.

How To Turn Off a Push-Button Start Car

If you’ve only driven vehicles with keyed ignition systems in the past, it might take a while to get used to cars with a push-button start. It’s important to know how to turn off a push-button start car properly.

The specific steps to use the push-button start can vary according to various factors, such as the manufacturer. Consult your owner’s manual or repair guide for the recommended approach to shut down your keyless ignition vehicle.

In general, here are the steps on how to safely turn off a push-button start car:

  • Bring your vehicle to a stop.
  • Engage the parking brake.
  • Shift the transmission into parking gear.
  • Press the push-button start to shut down the engine.
turning on the ignition switch
In a keyed ignition system, the ignition switch checks the key’s teeth to determine if it’s the right one. In a a push-button start system, the device compares the anti-theft key code with the one stored in its memory.

Pros of a Push-Button Start

Having a push start button in your car has several benefits:

  • Prevents car theft by disabling the ignition system until it receives the right signal from the key fob paired with your vehicle
  • Lowers the risk of accidents on the road by keeping the engine from starting until you put your foot on the brake pedal and press the push-button start
  • Can reduce the risk of locking your vehicle while your key fob is in the trunk or cabin by setting off an alarm to warn you about the problem
  • Enables remote locking, unlocking, and engine starting without first taking the key fob out of your bag or pocket

Disadvantages of a Push-Button Start in Cars

Keyless ignition systems have improved since their large-scale introduction in 1998, but they also have limitations.

Here are some of the most common disadvantages of push-button start in cars:

  • The car will continue to run even when you take the key fob out of its interior
  • The car can be turned off while driving, which increases the risk of accidental rolling
  • Increased risk of neglecting to turn the engine off because of the combination of keyless ignition and low-noise engines
  • Push-button start key fobs are vulnerable to hacking by car thieves
  • Replacement key fobs cost far more than keys
  • Key fob can run out of power, disabling the push-button start and locking the doors until you either contact the manufacturer to unlock your vehicle or use the physical emergency key in the fob

The push-button start hasn’t reached the same level of ubiquity as power locks and windows, but it’s well on its way there. Its successor, the buttonless ignition, has already appeared in some vehicles. But for now, the push-button start remains a very convenient option to secure and start your vehicle.

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Tony Harlin is a Master Gas and Diesel Diagnostic Technician with over 18 years of experience. He works full-time at a large independent automotive shop as a driveability and repair technician working on all types of vehicles with a focus on diesels. ASE certifications include A1-A9, L1 and L2, as well as X1.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

File Under : Ignition System , DIY
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chinedu o ilor

Very insightful review. Many thanks for the article.

Kevk

i do not believe the push button system is totally secured. as car thief has figured out a way to clone key fobs. I’ve heard and read theft recently in push button ignitions are higher than ever.

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