My rental car locked itself with the keys inside

This is the story of how I locked the keys inside our rental car, stranding the whole family mid-journey, far from anywhere and with bad weather approaching. It’s also the story of how we regained access to the car, and what I learned from the experience.

In short:

  • Some makes of car will automatically lock their doors after a certain time, if certain conditions are met
  • Some cars will lock themselves even with the keyless entry fob inside the vehicle
  • It is possible to configure most cars so that they don’t automatically lock themselves
  • If you’re in England, the AA are pretty good at coming to the rescue, but…
  • Don’t lock the keys in your rental car

One key to rule them all

Our family holiday this summer was a road trip around England and Scotland. We spent three [mostly] sun-drenched weeks exploring the Cotswolds, the Lake District, the Cairngorms, and North Norfolk. A good time was had by all.

shallimus | Dread Pirate Robots Max at Cotswold Lavender

We don’t own a car. We have arranged our day-to-day lives in Toronto so that we seldom need to drive, and this suits us well. We carry our groceries home in bags and in strollers, we ride bikes, we ride transit, and we walk a lot. Sometimes, we rent cars.

A lap of Britain requires a set of wheels, though, and so we rented a Ford Kuga for our entire time in the UK. Although the suspension was a bit soft, this was otherwise a fortunate selection, and I would be content to drive one again. I say this even knowing that the Kuga conceals within its primitive car-brain the urge to lock itself at the drop of a hat. This is, of course, a particular problem when you only have a single key.

Road trip, interrupted

When you own a car, you typically carry a set of keys for it, and you have a spare set at home. If you have a partner, they probably have a set too. If your keys get locked in the car, you either fetch the spare set from home, or get your partner to come and unlock it. They then make fun of you for a couple of minutes, and everyone goes on with their day.

It’s different with rental cars. I’ve driven quite a few rental cars over the last couple of decades in six or seven different countries, and I’ve never once been given more than one key. Flawless management of this single lonely object, then, is all that stands between you and immense frustration.

On the way to Norfolk, we stopped for lunch at Abbey Park Farm Shop on the A17. It had been recommended by a cheerful server in a café in York. Sure enough, the food at Abbey Park Farm Shop was tasty and reasonably priced, and the staff were kind to the children.

While the rest of the gang finished their ice cream cones, I decided to put the umbrella stroller back in the car so we could get back on the road as soon as possible. I’d driven around 2,000km since we’d left the Cotswolds a week earlier, and I was looking forward to a week of R&R at a single location.

Keyless (no) entry

I opened the boot of our rental Ford Kuga, and performed some mild Tetris until the stroller fit neatly on top of our other luggage. I closed the boot, and walked over to the rest of the family. I think I may have stolen a taste of Max’s ice cream.

Ford Kuga locked out
shallimus | Dread Pirate Robots These doors will soon be locked

At any rate, I walked back to the car perhaps a minute later, and went to open the boot again, but it was locked. Huh. I walked to the driver’s side door. Locked. This wasn’t right. I tried the other doors. All locked.


The key. Where was the key?

The lingering sweetness of raspberry ripple was displaced by a sudden pang of ghastly clarity: the key was in the cup holder, the cup holder was attached to the stroller, the stroller was in the SUV, the SUV had locked itself, and we were stranded.

The only silver lining at this point – and it was a big one – is that both young children were safely outside with us.

At this point, a confession: Olanna was already a strong advocate for best practice in the matter of car keys. She always made sure that one door was open whenever one of the children was in the parked car to avoid just this sort of scenario.

I am ashamed to admit that up until this point I had not taken her concerns very seriously at all. It is therefore very much to Olanna’s credit that she calmly accepted news of our predicament. Of course, she was keen to know how I planned to fix the mess I had made.

For that matter, so was I.

Help is on the way

Pretty quickly, I decided to call the AA. Better a credit card charge, I reasoned, than an unhappy family stuck in the car park of a farm shop at closing time, under a rapidly-darkening set of sullen rain clouds, many long miles from where we planned to sleep that night.

After explaining my predicament to the operator, I was transferred to John, who was calm, sympathetic, and actually a pleasure to speak with, despite presumably spending much of his time on the phone dealing with unfortunate halfwits like myself. Here, surely, was the good omen I badly needed.

Adam Barnett | Dread Pirate Robots By the time we got to Bamburgh Castle, the gates were locked.
Coincidence, or spooky omen? Coincidence. It’s coincidence.

John from the AA gathered various details, and arranged for a local AA patrol van to come and find us. My mood lightened when he told me that “someone should be with you in about half an hour”, and I may even have smiled when he told me that the Ford Kuga itself had roadside assistance as part of the manufacturer’s warranty. The hefty charge I was bracing myself to pay would in fact be £0.00.

The patrolman, whose name I can’t remember, arrived after about 45 minutes. I was pleased to see him. On arrival, he did warn me that he couldn’t guarantee that he’d be able to get in, and I had to sign a damage waiver, but he had the quiet confidence of a man who knew his job well.

My original expectation was that he would have some sort of black box which he would use to send signals to our car through the ether to convince it to open up, but not for the first time that day, I was completely wrong.

Basically just some wire and a couple of doorstops

The man from the AA ducked into his van, and came out holding a bag which I can only describe as an outsize pencil case. From this he retrieved various bits of wire, and some rubber wedges. He proceeded to gently hammer the wedges between the top of the driver-side window and the door frame to create a narrow gap, through which he fished for the lock button with the wire.

Sometimes the old ways really are the best. It took him a solid six or seven minutes, but after a few failed attempts, he managed to snag the lock, and the car was open once more.

To say I was relieved would be an understatement. In that moment, I could have kissed the AA patrolman, although I managed to restrain myself. Instead, I asked him if there was any rule against me giving him twenty quid as a token of our appreciation, and he agreed that there was nothing illegal about that. We thanked him again, and he went on his way. Soon after that, we were back on the road ourselves.

shallimus | Dread Pirate Robots We hiked in the mist beneath Scafell Pike

Autolock: why?

The only real hardship here was a delay to our journey of not quite 90 minutes, but it could have been so much worse: what if it was the middle of the night, somewhere really remote, in terrible weather? Worse, what if one of the children was trapped in the car, strapped into a carseat on a hot day? In that event, I’d certainly have put a rock through a window to rescue my child, but that’s not a great outcome.

First principle: the driver should never be locked out of the car. Of course, an argument could be made that the key should always be in the pocket of the driver:

The best situation is just always have [the keys] on you; never trust them to leave them in your vehicle

CAA spokesperson Angèle Young

This isn’t bad advice, but it’s totally inadequate. With autolock, the user is punished for not understanding the intentions of the designer. Sure, I made a mistake, but lots of other people will too. It is inevitable that bad things will happen on a regular basis, and so the design is flawed.

People take things out of their pockets all the time. Lots of clothing doesn’t have proper pockets at all; this is too often an issue with women’s clothing, but in this case, I was wearing some gym shorts with pockets too shallow for me to trust them with anything important.

In future, I will do my best to consider very carefully where the keys are any time I am closing the doors of a vehicle, and I’m adding two items to my “Collecting a rental car” checklist:

  • Make sure the manual is present in the car
  • Make sure you know how the autolock function works; ask for it to be disabled if possible

So why do many modern cars lock themselves while they sit there? At least one Bavarian car manufacturer describes autolock as a “comfort feature”, which makes no sense to me at all, and has a distinct whiff of empty marketing bullshit. I’m struggling to see how it’s not just a solution looking for a problem.

A loch nestles amongst the Cairnwell mountains
shallimus | Dread Pirate Robots Picnic above Loch Vrotachan

Convenience vs. safety is always subjective, but having gone through the experience of being locked out, I would rather push a button to lock my car by hand 10,000 times than be locked out just once.

In fact, I’ll go further: convenience be damned. If I want to prevent people from gaining access to my house, I lock the door when I leave. It’s not hard. I can do the same with any car I drive. If I want the car locked, I’ll lock it myself, thank you.

Is it possible to disable auto-lock?

Most modern vehicles offer options to reconfigure autolock. Some might even offer it from the driver menu. In the case of the 2017 Ford Kuga, a certain arcane sequence of ignition and door lock button pushes may disable the feature, but each make and model is different. The Kuga, for instance, will lock itself after 30 seconds if the boot has been opened, but the driver side door has remained closed.

Good to know.

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