Pushbutton Cars

I’ve mentioned before that I travel some on business. My business trips are usually pretty routine: catch a flight to some “exotic” destination, land and pickup a rental car, visit a customer or attend a Mentor Graphics meeting, spend the night in a hotel, eat fast food, then press the “repeat” button until it’s time to go home. Sometimes I’m on the road for a quick day trip; sometimes I’m away from my office for a week of more. But the travel drill doesn’t change much, no matter what city I’m in. Some people, my wife often included, think travelling on business must be huge amounts of fun. I think of it as just another workday, but in a different office. Occasionally getting out of the office is a good thing, but I’ve travelled enough in my career that it’s become a pretty routine business exercise. On a recent trip, however, my routine was a bit interrupted – this time when I picked-up my rental car.

Of my routine travel activities, picking-up a rental car is probably the most interesting and potentially fun – it’s the “car guy” in me. I never know what make and model of car I’ll end-up with. Then there is always the routine list of questions at the rental counter, followed by the inevitable “Mr. Jensen, for an additional $5.00 per day, we can upgrade you to a larger, fancier car” upsell attempt. I’m 6 feet 6 inches tall, so I must be an easy mark for the “let’s see if we can get this guy into a bigger, more expensive car”. While I don’t mind the question, I always refuse – but often get a courtesy upgrade anyway. Or sometimes I am renting at just the right time and end-up being assigned a fancier, upgraded car because the rental car company is out of the car I requested – all at the agreed upon smaller car price. It’s almost like winning the lottery without buying a ticket.

On a recent trip to Mentor Graphics headquarters in Wilsonville, Oregon, I rented a mid-sized car. Rental car companies naturally supply cars at or near the current model year, and for this trip I was assigned a 2011 Nissan Altima. The rental car agent gave me my keys, or at least so I thought, and I was off to begin the driving portion of my trip. After throwing my luggage into the back seat and taking my customary walk around the car to make certain everything was in reasonable order (i.e. no serious damage), I jumped into the driver’s seat to begin the 45 minute drive south on I-205. I took the car key (which later turned out to be a trunk-only key) and started looking in the usual places for the ignition switch: steering column, dashboard, etc. Only I couldn’t find a key receptacle. I thought about going back to the rental counter to ask for help, but decided it wasn’t the manly thing to do. I was, after all, an engineer and should be able to figure this out. I looked in the glove box hoping to find an owner’s manual. Nothing. I was almost ready to give up when I noticed it…a round button, about the size of a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar, centered in the dash just to the left of the stereo console, and sporting an easily noticeable “Start” label. “Why not?” I thought, so I pushed the button. The dashboard sprang to life, but no sound from the engine compartment. I pushed the button again and more accessories turned on, but still nothing from the engine. So I tried pushing and holding the button, this time with success. The Altima’s engine started and I was soon on my way.

I’ve since discovered the pushbutton Nissan is not new; the Start button is a regular fixture in recent model years. And I do remember driving a Toyota Prius several years ago with a similar button, and similar confusion for myself. But the Prius is a little different since it starts out in electric mode – cranking an internal combustion engine not required.

I’m not sure why engineers at Nissan decided to use the Start button in their standard, internal combustion Altima. Is there a design or system advantage? I don’t know. But it is a pretty cool, even somewhat novel, feature. The lines between traditionally segregated automotive electrical and mechanical systems continue to be blurred, and I think for good reason. These two design disciplines are a natural fit, producing electromechnical systems with more possibilities than available with either standalone technology. The trick is getting the systems right, which starts at the design stage. Mixed-technology, multi-domain system simulation is key to successful, complex system development.

Pushbutton starters are certainly not new – my grandpa’s old John Deere farming tractor (think mid-1900’s vintage) used a pushbutton to engage the starter and start the engine. Finally adding pushbutton start to passenger cars seems a logical, if not long overdue, application. Just remember…if you can’t find the traditional key-based ignition switch in your next rental car, just look for the Start button. With the age of the pushbutton car upon us, I expect to see more rental car Start buttons as I travel.

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Posted April 18th, 2011, by

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Commented on April 20, 2011 at 11:57 am
By MicroMan

I find nonsense like Start Buttons to be an abuse of technology. Is fitting a metal key into a slot and turning such a complex effort that we need highly sophisticated electronics to perform this 25 cent operation for us? Oh, security, that’s why they do it. Well, security that costs hundreds of dollars (ever try to replace that lost thing in your pocket that has to sync with some hidden radio xmtr). Will the radio/MCU/battery die and an expensive trip to the dealer be needed to determine whether it was that or my worn starter motor that stranded me?

I’ve replaced dozens of failed $ensor$ in my cars the last few years just to keep them running, but rare is it that there was something fundamentally wrong with the engine.

And I hate getting into rent cars and wondering which will befuddle me: where’s the wiper switch, where’s the power window button (don’t worry, I’ll just open this door and hand you my rental agreement / toll money), are those doors locked, how do I open the gas door, how do I get the gear lever to move, how do I find a rock and roll radio station with English DJs – and set that to a button, and where did they hide the 12v power jack (“cigarette lighter”). Working out the combination / sequence for everything to be just right so I can start up the car just because there’s too much electronic wizardry to outsmart me makes me long for an old Chevy Vega. A simple VOM would tell you whether you had 12v and could continue your problem-chasing elsewhere.

What haft we wrought?

Commented on April 25, 2011 at 6:15 pm
By Mike Jensen

Thanks for the comment. What have we wrought indeed… I’m a big fan of technology, but not when we use it just because we can. Applications need to make practical sense. And I remember the days of the Chevy Vega…definitely a simpler “work on your car in your own garage” time.

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