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Push-button start: An old-school solution reimagined for the modern age

Want a cup of coffee? It’s easy as popping a k-cup into your Keurig and hitting a button. It’ll take, maybe, a minute. Making a cup once required more effort—maybe 10 minutes when you add up grinding the beans, measuring it out into a filter, and waiting for the water to heat up and for the coffee to then brew. That may not seem like a long time, but first thing in the morning, it’s an eternity compared to today’s convenience.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://www.hagerty.com/articles-videos/articles/2018/01/09/push-button-start

The difference between the “old school” and “new school” push button starter isn’t necessarily the action of pushing the button, but the result of pushing the button. When you push the starter button of an early Cadillac…or any vehicle up until the 1998 Mercedes with push button start you were mindfully controlling when the starter motor engaged and then disengaged once the engine roared to life.

The modern version of the push button you are merely suggesting to the vehicle that you would like to energize the necessary systems so that you can start driving and become mobile. There is no direct correlation between how long you depress the button and what happens. The computer takes over and does this for you. (The same is true for modern vehicles with a traditional key that you turn…the computer is doing the work for you.)

I have noticed that it is common for younger drivers to use the phrase “turn the car on” versus the majority who drove vehicles prior to 1998 will still say “start the car”. Subtle, I know…but the difference is telling.

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I believe the push button start uses the same technology as the earlier “immobilizer” systems. These used a PASSIVE (no battery) Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID) system. In most of these, there is an RFID transponder device molded into the plastic part of the key (or fob). The car has an antenna that emits a radio signal that powers and wakes up the RFID transponder in the key. The key then transmits a security code back to the car. These communications use encryption. Typically the range of these systems is very short because no battery is involved. The frequency of the radio field does not change, but because of encryption, the message to allow the car to start will change.

The remote door-unlocking uses a different ACTIVE RFID system that uses a battery in the fob or key. It has a mach larger range so you can unlock the car from a distance. Of course encryption is used to prevent thieves from unlocking the car.

Infrared technology is not used in automotive applications. That is what makes your TV remote work. That is why you need to aim the remote at the TV so the IR light gets received by the TV. This technology would not work in bright daylight since sunlight is rich in IR. The sunlight would swamp-out the signal from the remote.