Image: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The first time I started a car by pressing a button, it felt too easy and convenient.

The push-button ignition is one of those buttons that doesn't really add any new features over the thing it's replacing. It exists for the sake of convenience. You get in the car, press the brake pedal and a button, and you are ready to drive. It's not as difficult asunlocking your phone.

For most of us, it's the most raw power we can generate with just our fingertips. If you flip a switch, you could get access to over 2,000 watt. It's not a small sum, but pushing a button to start a car gives you the power to move yourself, your family, luggage, and a machine that weighs thousands of pounds at highway speeds.

Near instant access to over 100 horsepower.
Image: Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The buttons themselves are standard across the auto industry, which is surprising considering how different regular old keys can be. Every one I've seen has a circular location to the right of the steering wheel with lights on to indicate that the car is on. Many cars require a simultaneous press of the brake pedal to guard against accidental starts. The combination of convenience and manual process makes it feel like you are doing something, but you don't have to worry about messing with a key.

Push to start has been around the block

Push-button start is a feature that goes back over a century, but I thought it was a modern feature when I wrote this. The 1912 Cadillac Model 30 was one of the first cars to have a button-based ignition. The convenience factor was diminished by the few other steps, like setting the engine's fuel / air ratio and spark timing. The Model 30 has a push-button start. It was also keyless because there wasn't a key at all.

At some point, people realized that there should be a way to prevent anyone from starting your car. When cars had keys, you weren't actually turning on the car with the key. Most of us are familiar with the system of buttons and levers, but by the 1950s many cars were coming with the same system. It stayed that way until someone decided it was time to bring the button back and all the convenience that came with it.

I asked the company if it considered itself to be the inventor of the modern push to start system, but they didn't reply. While that car had a standard key that you could use to start the car, you could option it out to include a keyless system that wouldn't be out of place in a modern car. If you had a special plastic card on you, you could walk up to the car, get in it, and turn it on by pressing a button on the top of the gear shift.

Push to start was a luxury feature. The S-Class started at over 70k dollars, which is around 130k dollars today. If you remember the songs from the likes of 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, and Gucci Baby, they all had lyrics about cars that don't have keys. In two songs, he references his push-button ignition.

The key fobs for push to start cars usually don’t include a metal blade, making them more comfortable in the pocket than traditional keys.
Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Only half of the top 10 most-sold cars in the US come with the feature as standard, and it isn't as exotic as it is here. If you buy the lowest-end model of the Toyota RAV4, Camry, or Tacoma, a Honda CR-V, or a Ford F-150, you will get a traditional turning key to start it. The exclusion of push-to-start in the base F-150 isn't necessarily a surprise given that the truck doesn't come with cruise control. All the vehicles ditch the ignition cylinder for a button when you move up two or three trims.

When I got my first car with a push-button start in 2020, it was a bit confusing because I hadn't driven decades-old cars before. I used to press the button a split second before the brakes were applied, but now it feels good. I tried to get out of the car without fully turning it off, but it would yell at me again.

Push-button starts have a cost, as with many conveniences. Several dozen people have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning or uncontrollable moving vehicles after they left their cars running, assuming that they would turn off after they got out with the key. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a page that warns people if their car has a keyless ignition system. The deaths show that when a machine becomes easy to use without thinking, people won't think about it. The proposed laws to prevent CO2 poisoning and rollaways haven't been passed yet.

Many manufacturers are coming up with ways to prevent deaths. Thanks to companies that are pushing the convenience envelope even further, the push to start button may be numbered. Many luxury electric vehicles do not have a manual startup process. The car is ready to whisk you away after you get in.

Hilariously, Volvo’s website shows a blank where the XC40 Recharge’s push to start button would be, but no actual button.
Image: Volvo

There are signs that the buttonless startup could be on the way, like Volvo's XC40 Recharge which automatically turns itself on and off. It's the same tech as the cars, but they just turn on the motor when you use the gear selector, rather than making it a separate step.

Push to start will be a shame if it is completely replaced. It could take quite a while to arrive, given how slowly buttons have spread since their resurgence. The button will act as a little luxury until then, giving those lucky enough to have one less thing to worry about while getting in the car for their morning commute.