An Albemarle County couple is questioning an automaker's technology after their car automatically locked with their grandson inside. They've gone months with no answer from BMW about what they believe is a safety failure that could affect millions of drivers nationwide.
This isn't just about BMW owners. The Longley family believes anyone with a car operated by a so-called smart key is at risk and we found safety complaints to back up their concerns.
The date August 8, 2013 is locked in Joan Longley’s memory. She had taken her 2-year-old grandson Teddy to swimming lessons. It was the end of a family summer on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. But one quick click brought that beautiful day to a grinding halt.
“I put my purse in first, shut the door. Teddy can climb in by himself. Then, I strapped him in, shut his door, heard it click and walked around thinking ‘no, I’m sure it's okay’…and it was locked,” Longley stated. “I looked around and saw every door was locked. And what do you do? You just start to get really worried.”
Longley's key fob was in her purse, locked inside the BMW X5. She says the SUV's custom handle-touch access system failed to open.
“Everything was locked. I tried every door, I tried the trunk, couldn't get in,” she stated.
Joan's husband Charles called BMW Assist to open the doors remotely, but that didn't work. A dealership told the couple to call 911 as temperatures soared to 90 degrees with Teddy trapped inside.
“I did not have any thought about this shouldn't have happened. I just wanted to get Teddy out. Then, of course, I started thinking – ‘wait a minute, why did the car lock?’ It shouldn't have happened.” Charles Longley said.
A report from rescue crews on the scene details their efforts to unlock the Longley’s X5. It says the crew reached the door handle and the lock button but it did not allow them to gain access.
After 45 minutes of trying to break into the car, firefighters used an axe to slice the front windshield and peel back the glass.
“They reached in for her purse, pulled the fob out, clicked it and the car opened. So, the fob was functional but, it was in the wrong location,” Charles Longley said.
The BMW X5's owner manual specifically says that cannot happen. Two BMW dealerships - including the one in Charlottesville - failed to find anything wrong with the Longley’s X5.
The scratches and damage done trying to break in totaled nearly $12,000. BMW has agreed to pay for repairs but the Longleys are leading a charge that's not about money.
“There is a flaw. We have proof of that. It didn't function as normal,” Charles Longley stated. “It is potentially life-threatening.”
The Longleys sent three letters to BMW North America’s CEO detailing the frightening situation involving Teddy and the X5's locking system. The first was dated October 10, 2013 and the most recent was sent March 28. They received no response.
The Longleys say dozens of calls and emails to the customer service rep assigned by BMW to manage their claim have gone ignored since February.
“We became a little more concerned about their interest in the safety of their locking system,” Charles said. “The lack of sensitivity, they were insensitive to our request for an investigation of this situation, they were non-responsive to a life-threatening situation that we continue to repeat.”
We reached out to BMW by email, and received a response within four days. The German automaker argues there's no evidence indicating the Longleys' doors locked themselves, saying "there is no evidence to indicate that the door locks locked themselves. They were locked."
But, in a statement, BMW spokesman Dave Buchko admits, "Unfortunately there may be situations when the key is in a purse or briefcase when the car cannot "see" it, that is, cannot receive a signal."
That's little relief for the Longleys who believe that smart-key technology has a potentially fatal flaw.
“When they do go wrong in the wrong situation, it's life-threatening,” Charles Longley stated.
This week, after promotional materials for this story aired on NBC29, the customer service representative for BMW contacted the Longleys. They have scheduled time for repairs to the car.
A search of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's database finds similar locked-in complaints for BMW, Toyota, and Jeep.
So what should you do to reduce the chances of your smart keys locking inside? AAA recommends you familiarize yourself with the technology and what to do in an emergency, replace the battery in your key every two years or as recommended by your vehicle to avoid it failing, don't expose the smart key to harsh elements, especially water, and get a spare key and store it somewhere safe.