Friday, January 7, 2011


It's Friday afternoon. Campus, the building, the department, hell, the hall are all pretty much dead. Around one o'clock, I'd done my allotted amount of the work for the day and figured I would go home.

As I was walking to the parking lot I saw a car awkwardly parked in the driving lane. Is that the correct term? You know, the area where you pull in and out of spots. Anyway, it was at an angle that basically had it taking up the whole lane, quite successfully. From a distance it looked to be in the area where I parked my car.

Guess what? It was. Directly in front of my car. With no driver in sight.

I hustled (it's cold out!) back into the building and into the security office. I just barely started to explain the situation when SecurityMan interrupted with an explanation:

The driver's key broke off... while still in the ignition.

A tow truck was on its way and SecurityMan agreed to call me once the car was gone. [He actually just called a few minutes ago, saying that the truck was here, but the car has yet to be removed. I'll give them a few more minutes.] Now, this isn't that big of a deal for me. I'm not rushing off anywhere, just wanted to start my weekend a little early. And no one could argue that this is  most unfortunate for the car's owner, but my question is: 


It's clear that the car started and that she was able to partially back it out of the spot. But that's all I understand of the situation. Here are the possibilities floating around in my head:
  • She started the car as normal, and only after starting to back out the key broke, thus stalling the car.
Is that even possible? Some force is needed to break the key, it couldn't do it on its own, right? Could a broken key stall a car?
  • The key broke off as she turned the ignition, but the car started. After figuring she could drive to a garage she started to back out, but then the car died.
This I feel is more plausible, but again, we're back to if a car could run with a broken key in it? Can you simultaneously break a key AND start a car? 
  • She drives a manual and while backing out the spot the car stalled. When she tried to restart the car, that's when the key broke off.
Probably the most likely scenario, but I still have my concerns. I know very little about manual transmissions, but is it possible to stall while backing up??
  • And the final possibility: A gremlin popped out from behind the back seat and smashed the key with a sledgehammer.
If you have any sort of auto-knowledge, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Or perhaps more interestingly, if anyone has a bizarre explanation, comment that as well.

I'm off to check if my car is free. Wish me luck!

Update: All was clear.


  1. Of those scenarios stalling seems the most likely. Manuals usually stall moving from a stop or coming to a complete stop. At that point you are using both feet (and hands) at the same time. So she started the car by turning the key so hard it broke but the car is running. Started backing up and stalled.

    Newer cars have chips in the keys. If a thief were to hot wire the car, it would run for a few seconds then shut off. In this case, again she started her car so hard the key broke. The car is running but she threw the key in the passenger seat. That may have been to far from the sensor to register the key. The car thinks it's stolen and shuts off as she is backing up.

    In any case she must bench 928374 pounds to break the key. I would imagine the ignition cylinder would break/wear out before the key would. Was she on her way to the gym?

  2. 1) This is tickling my ever male installed love for Car Talk. (That's a radio show for those that don't listen to NPR) Every week they do a puzzler trivia question, and ahem, you MUST submit this! I can only imagine the humor in their voices as they debate whether or not the type of car is a crucial detail in this story. I submit that it is!

    2) I also argue some material sciences are at play here. Metal becomes brittle at cold temperatures. Now, I doubt it is below 0 there, but perhaps some combo of multiple stresses during freezing temperatures created some special circumstance for optimum key shearing potential.

    3) I also agree with Franklin's assessment. The car was started, broke the key. In a moment of bewilderment, panic, and asking herself how this could have happened she then stalled the car while backing out. Expletives followed.

    4) Why is there no picture with this story!!!

  3. Personally, I like the gremlin theory. It accounts for all the factors, plus adds that quality of whimsy to the whole scenario. Actually the gremlin was her toy dog that she keeps in her lap while she's driving (like so many idiots). The dog saw a squirrel out the front window, went berserk, thrust itself against the dash, barking, which broke the key off in the ignition. She was so startled, the car stalled, she opened the door to get help, the dog got out and chased the squirrel with her in hot pursuit. That's why the car was still blocking yours.

  4. I have absolutely no guess would have been the gremlin! Either that or the same person that made Michael's tire fall off of his car moved to Maine.

  5. Here is an article on how newer keyless entry systems can be hacked (opened, started and driven without a key).