Keyless Remotes To Cars in Waldorf Suddenly Useless
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 5, 2004; Page B01
Vernon Garrison was stuck at the supermarket -- outside, actually, in the front seat of a navy blue Caprice Classic that would not start.
His keyless entry remote control, the device that unlocks the doors and also is required to start the engine of his car, had gone haywire again. "I was furious," said Garrison, 67, who owns a gas station and, fortunately for him, another car.
For 20 minutes as he waited for help, Garrison watched keenly as several customers came out of the Shoppers Food Warehouse in Waldorf, aimed remotes at their cars and failed to open their doors. Point, push, nothing. Just as he thought.
"I could see them walk up," he said, remembering that afternoon two months ago. "I'm saying, 'It's not going to work.' "
Matt Drake has seen this, too, and wishes he had an explanation. He works at a Radio Shack across Route 301 from the grocery store.
"Volvo, BMW, Mercedes, it does not discriminate," Drake said, pointing over the counter to the strip mall parking lot. "If every single one of those cars has a keyless entry, every single one will not work."
The sporadic incidents -- at least five days in the past year, by Drake's count -- have become something of a mystery in Waldorf, a sprawling mix of shopping centers and subdivisions in Charles County. But such outages are not unprecedented.
Three years ago, thousands of drivers in Bremerton, Wash., were stumped on two occasions when their push-button remotes proved impotent. It happened in Las Vegas in February, prompting hundreds of calls to car dealerships and locksmiths. And in May, a two-way radio system being tested at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle jammed remote control garage door openers in communities near the base.
In most cases, remote control failure is little more than a curiosity, as drivers can simply use their keys to unlock the doors. Some cars, however, require the device to deactivate an alarm or start the engine. Charles Vernon, a retiree from Accokeek whose remote first malfunctioned at the mall in Waldorf on May 10, said the problem is a safety issue and an inconvenience.
"You don't buy the car not to be able to use it," he said.
There is no shortage of speculation on what is causing the problem in Waldorf. Diana Rucci, the operations director at Waldorf Ford, overheard customers in a local restaurant saying NASA satellites were involved. Others pointed to storm clouds, cell phones, solar flares, the Taliban.
Drake said he's not so sure. "Everybody thinks it's the government," he said with a sly grin. "I think it's aliens."
Tony Rose, Charles County's chief of emergency communications, has heard about the problem but would hazard only a vague guess. "It may be something new in Waldorf, some kind of wireless technology," he said. "But I can't confirm it."
Keyless entry remotes have become standard in new cars in recent years. Of the more than 14 million cars and light trucks produced in the United States last year, 77 percent came with the remotes, up from 32 percent in 1996, according to industry research company WardsAuto.com.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Charles Vernon says malfunctioning remote controls are a safety issue and an inconvenience. "You don't buy the car not to be able to use it," he says.
(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)