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Jim Heffernan column: Car keys becoming a thing of the past

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan

I crashed my car recently in an unfortunate two-vehicle accident, bringing it to the end of its natural life. Fortunately I and an early-teen grandson riding shotgun were not injured, but the astute insurance people looked it over and declared it “totaled.” Sayonara, Toyota SUV.

So I got a replacement; same kind, but several years newer and, much to my amazement, it doesn’t have a key. It comes with something they call a “fob” that projects electronic waves and all you have to do is have it in your pocket and it does all the work of getting you going.

If the vehicle is locked, the door automatically unlocks when you approach it, thanks to the fob. Then, once inside and behind the wheel, you don’t even have to insert a key into what we all used to consider the “ignition.” You simply press a black button on the dashboard to fire up the engine.

Wow. That is SO nice. It used to be incredibly taxing to reach into your pocket, pull out an ignition key, insert and turn it to start the engine. Ain’t technology great? Americans will no longer have to turn ignition keys to start their cars. It’s called progress.

I recently read a New York Times article that said this is the wave of the future for all vehicles. It mentioned cars have gone from cranks to this tremendous advancement in science and technology in something over 100 years. What’s next, Mars? You wonder.

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Of course there’s talk of self-driving cars but we won’t get into that today. I won’t get into one ever, I hope. Ubiquitous electric cars? Shocking.

I wonder if younger people today even know what cranks on cars were. First, let’s be clear: They were not all of the drivers. Car cranks were even before my time, but I’ve encountered a few. And you sometimes see them in movies about the olden days. To fire up the engine, a person had to insert a good-sized crank at the front of the vehicle connected to the engine, turn it, and voila, the car might start. If it wouldn’t start, crank again. Another failure? Flag down a horse or oxen.

My driving years actually started in the 1950s on cars largely produced in the 1930s because no cars were manufactured during World War II. Well, they made Jeeps but they were running around Europe and the Pacific theaters. Model A Fords were still fairly abundant.

Many of the older cars available to young drivers when I began driving had starter pedals on the floor, to the left of the clutch, which was to the left of the brake pedal, over there by the accelerator. To start them, you’d insert a key in the dashboard, turn it “on,” press the starter pedal with your left foot and shoot the juice into the motor by pressing the accelerator and hope for the best, especially in cold weather.

Cold winter weather was the bugaboo of car starting in this part of the world. But if you lived on a Duluth hillside, as I did, if your battery failed you could simply roll down the hill, slip the shift into gear, pop the clutch and nature would start the car for you. Thank you, Sir Isaac Newton.

In my early driving years, most models had eliminated the foot pedal starter and featured a button on the dashboard, labeled the “starter button,” that you pressed after turning the key while depressing the accelerator, being careful not to “flood” the engine. Many readers of a certain age will know about flooding the engine, so it’s not worth going into detail. Suffice it to say that if you did it, the car wouldn’t start at all and the strong odor of gasoline would permeate. Quick, call FEMA.

That New York Times story mentioned that in 1949 Chrysler introduced a system in which the operator could insert the key and then just turn it to fire up the engine. Just think what an incredible advance that was. No more starter pedals or buttons to fatigue drivers.

In case any reader is finding this informative, I should close by explaining how you turn the fob-equipped car off. What you do is depress the same button you used to start the car and it turns off all by itself. No turning an ignition key off and having to pull it back out. How convenient is that?

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Finally, without a key how do you open the trunk? A subject for another day, after I figure it out.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org .

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