Question: I have a Chevy Bolt EV and during the recent heat wave I left the vehicle “on” while parking in order to leave the air conditioning running. The car is designed so that it can turn itself “on” in order to cool the battery, so turning it “off” doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily stay “off. Making the vehicle move when it’s “on” still requires that you have the fob, have your foot on the brake, your thumb on the shifter button while shifting out of park, after taking off the parking brake. So, in my opinion with all these interlocks, it’s perfectly safe. But is it legal in Washington?
Answer: Back in 1965 (and probably even earlier, but that’s far enough back for the purposes of this article), we had a law in Washington that stated, “No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key and effectively setting the brake ….” Fifty-five years later, our current law on unattended vehicles starts with the exact same sentence.
In 1965, electric cars were more science fiction than reality. Sure, there were some experiments, and early on (up until the Model T), electric cars looked like they might lead the nascent automotive industry, but for the last century, internal combustion engines have ruled the road. Even now, fully electric cars make up less than 1% of the vehicles on the road in the U.S.
I bring up the history of the unattended vehicle law in parallel with the history of electric cars because we generally write laws to address present concerns. Who in 1965 could have predicted that in 2021 we’d have electric cars that could automatically turn on to cool themselves? Or imagined what kinds of safety systems a future car would have? Or that you could start your car with your phone from inside your house while a robot makes your cappuccino?
Was this law important in 1965? Yes, for two reasons: unattended vehicle roll-aways (ask me about the 1966 Ford pickup I had in high school), and vehicle theft. That’s what this law is trying to prevent. Is the law still relevant? Yes, again. While less frequent due to improvements in vehicle safety systems, unattended roll-aways still happen, and leaving your car running is still an invitation to get it stolen.
But how does this apply to an electric vehicle? I took a look at the Chevy Bolt owner’s manual, and it describes how to remote-start your vehicle to heat or cool it for up to 40 minutes. Clearly, Chevy thinks it’s safe to leave the air conditioning on unattended. But then the manual says, “Laws in some local communities may restrict the use of remote starters.” Since you’re able to lock the ignition, remove the key and set the brake, it comes down to what the law means by “stopping the engine.” But the law was written when internal combustion engines were the only thing on the road, so I don’t think it answers your question.
If your electric car really is “perfectly safe” while it’s locked up with the brake on, quietly cooling itself, you’ll likely never get an official determination on how legal it is; I don’t expect that anyone would write you a ticket for it, so a judge won’t have an opportunity to make an interpretation of the law. But your question reminds us that no matter the car we have, we need to consider the safety implications of our actions, even when we’re parked.