Dear []:

This letter responds to your letter asking whether the key locking system you are developing for automatic transmission vehicles complies with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 114, Theft Protection. NHTSA has granted your request of confidential treatment regarding your identity and certain details of your key locking system. As discussed below, your system complies with the standard.

You described the operation of your proposed locking system as follows. The vehicle electronics automatically unlock the doors when they sense the presence of an electronically coded credit card-like "PASS-card." If the PASS-card is inside the vehicle, the engine can be started simply by pressing a "START" button located on the console. The engine can be stopped by pressing an "OFF" button if the transmission is in the "park" position. If the door is opened with the engine running or the transmission not in "park," a warning buzzer sounds. If the door is opened after stopping the engine, the warning buzzer does not sound. In addition, a traditional key can be used to unlock the doors and start and stop the engine. In a November 15, 1996 telephone conversation with Paul Atelsek of this office, a member of your staff confirmed that the transmission would be locked in the "park" position after the engine is stopped. Your staff member also stated that the removal of the the PASS-card from a running vehicle would have no effect on the vehicle's operation until the engine is stopped.

The term "key" is defined in S3 of the standard to include "any other device designed and constructed to provide a method for operating a locking system which is designed and constructed to be operated by that device." We agree that a credit card-like device (encoded as yours is with one of 1,000 code combinations for that vehicle type, in compliance with S4.4) that operates the doors and ignition system comes within this definition. The aspect of the device with the "key-like" properties, however, is really the code that the PASS-card transmits to the vehicle. In a May 22, 1992 interpretation to Stephen Selander, Esq., of General Motors Corporation (GM), NHTSA interpreted the code itself as the "key."

Section S4.2 of Standard No. 114 requires each vehicle to have a key-locking system that, whenever the key is removed, will prevent: (a) normal activation of the vehicle's engine or other main source of motive power; and (b) either steering, or forward self-mobility, or both. Your system meets S4.2(a) because the absence of the key (i.e., the code that the PASS-card transmits by its presence) prevents normal activation of the engine.

Your system also meets the requirement S4.2(b) because when the key code is removed, the vehicle will necessarily be locked in "park," preventing forward self-mobility. This situation is indistinguishable from that in the interpretation to GM. The enabling "key" in that system was the electronic code entered into the system. The only difference in your system is that the code is not entered manually, but automatically by the presence of a physical object, the PASS-card. In both cases, "removal" of the key code is accomplished only by locking the transmission and taking some other action (i.e., pressing a button and removing the PASS-card in your system, or turning a switch in GM's system). Although the enabling PASS-card can be removed without locking the transmission or shutting off the engine, this is no different, for the theft protection purposes of the standard, than being able to walk away from a running conventional vehicle with the keys in the ignition.

Although it was not yet in effect at the time of the interpretation letter to Mr. Selander, we noted at the end of that letter the transmission locking requirement in S4.2.1(a)(2). It requires the key-locking system in each vehicle which has an automatic transmission with a "park" position to prevent removal of the key unless the transmission or transmission shift lever is locked in "park" or becomes locked in "park" as the direct result of removing the key. Because the key code cannot be removed without pressing the "OFF" button, and locking the transmission or transmission shift lever in "park" is a necessary before the "OFF" button will work, your system would also comply with the transmission locking requirement.

The system also meets the requirements of S4.3, but we have some safety concerns about it. S4.3 requires that the means for deactivating the engine not activate the steering lock or transmission lock unless the vehicle is in "park." Your system complies because the means for deactivating the engine (the "OFF" button) does not itself activate these devices. The manual activation of transmission lock is merely a condition precedent to the function of the "OFF" button. The purpose of this provision is to assure that the driver's action of turning the engine off does not create an unsafe condition by locking the steering or the wheels. Most drivers assume that they will be able to deactivate the engine. In your system, the driver cannot deactivate the engine while the vehicle is in motion, even in the case of a stuck accelerator or an engine fire.

Your system complies with S4.5. It requires a warning to the driver whenever the key . . . has been left in the locking system and the driver's door is opened [except] (a) After the key has been withdrawn to a position from which it may not be turned; (b) When the key-locking system is in the "on" or "start" position, or; (c) After the key has been inserted in the locking system and before it has been turned.

Although the language of this provision was not intended for PASS-cards, we must apply it as best we can to your system. As long as the PASS-card is in the vehicle, the electrical systems are on and the key code will remain in the system, ready for the "START" button to be pressed. This situation is analagous to a keyed system being in the "on" position, ready to be turned to the "start" position. Therefore, as long as the PASS card is in the vehicle, the exception in S4.5(b) applies and the warning need not sound when the door is opened.

If you have any further questions about NHTSA's safety standards, please feel free to contact Paul Atelsek of my staff by telephone at (202) 366-2992.


John Womack
Acting Chief Counsel

cc: Stephen E. Selander, Esq.