By on November 23, 2004

Another stick shift car bites the dust (and gets a free shower) Check out the standard features on the latest automotive delicacy. Electronic engine controls? Check. Variable valve timing? Check. Throttle by wire? Anti-lock brakes? Speed-variable power steering? Electronic stability system? All-wheel drive? HID headlights? Air bags, front and side? Check, check and double check. Archaic system of transferring engine power to the wheels requiring the use of 2 feet, 3 pedals, both hands, visual, aural and fine motor coordination to operate the car? Yep, got that too.

Of course, the last feature is actually a traditional manual transmission and clutch. It seems that engineering progress has reached everywhere in the enthusiast's car except for the footwell. Today's manual clutch is the same antiquated system that's been around for the last 100 years, and it's a fundamentally unsafe way to control a car.

Driver distraction is a real bitch.Driver distraction is one of the major causes of vehicle accidents. According to a 2001 national survey conducted by the Network of Employers for Traffic Safety (NETS), roughly 25% of all fatal automobile accidents are caused by driver inattention. Although this research didn't examine the role of the manual transmission, its potential risks are patently obvious. Operating a manual transmission is an inherently difficult and dangerous procedure…

To start from standstill, the driver must coordinate both feet, using the right foot to bring up the engine speed and the left foot to slowly engage the clutch. At the same time, he has to judge the engine speed to anticipate the change to another gear. This he does aurally (listening to the revs) or visually (watching the tachometer). Listening to the engine can distract the driver from important auditory stimuli (e.g. approaching emergency vehicles), while watching the tachometer removes his eyes from the road. At the same time, neither foot is available for instantaneous braking.

A skinned Mercedes CLK automatic transmission.  That's better!Once underway, the dance of the feet begins anew– except now the driver must use his or her right hand to move the shift lever in coordination with his or her feet. The lack of a foot available for the brake pedal is even more critical since the car is now moving faster, and the driver is now steering with one hand.

Consider that this has to happen five or six times just to get to cruising speed, requiring driver concentration at some level. The amount of distraction caused by downshifting, shifting while turning a corner, and so on is even greater. Heaven help the chicken that decides to cross the road in front of a driver using a manual transmission.

VW's brilliant DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) gives drivers the best of both worlds-- except one of those worlds is still dysfunctional.Contrast this process with the fine art of driving an automatic transmission. The driver slips the shifter into drive and presses the accelerator. He's free to carve a corner without reacting to changes in vehicle speed or conditions by removing his right foot from the gas pedal. The transmission's electronic control system monitors the vehicle's speed, lateral and longitudinal acceleration; the steering wheel position and acceleration; and changes gear ratios accordingly.

Stick shift sticklers often defend their archaic rituals by arguing that manual transmissions are more fuel-efficient. Not so. While EPA numbers occasionally favor manual versions of a particular car, the comparison is skewed by the testing process, differences in gear ratios, engine tuning and vehicle option content. In real-world operation, manual cars never get mileage as good as a comparable automatic. The manual's mechanical efficiency advantage is always lost because drivers never shift optimally for efficiency. Engines are invariably over-revved, either through ignorance or the pursuit of aural pleasure. A properly sorted automatic is always in the correct gear, never makes a mistake, and demands infinitely less attention from the driver.

Why do enthusiasts cling to manuals when the safety and efficiency drawbacks are so obvious, and the alternative automatic transmission so well developed? Sometimes it's ignorance. Many enthusiasts have never driven a car equipped with a state-of-the-art automatic transmission, complete with electronics that adapt to the sporting driver's shifting preferences. More often the attitude is rooted deep in the car enthusiast's psyche: 'I want to be in control' or 'It connects me more intimately with the car'. Strip away the human vs. mechanical rationale and Zen posturing and all that remains is simple, willful resistance to change and progress.

The manually shifted automatic transmission seems to offer a compromise solution. These systems give enthusiast drivers the option of overriding the automatic function with either a separate gate to manipulate the transmission's logic circuit, or paddle shifters that ape the controls of a Formula One car. It's a logical "cake and eat it too" solution.

Though admirably sophisticated, the combined manual – automatic transmission is a technological dead-end. By the middle of the last century, many American automobiles used variations of the semi-automatic transmission. None survived the development of the automatic transmission, for four good reasons: safety, reliability, driving pleasure and, above all, common sense.

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19 Comments on “Death to The Stick Shift...”


  • avatar
    groszno

    Has this person ever actually driven a manual transmission? Who that regularly drives a manual transmission ever conciously thinks about the act of shifting gears or launching the car from a standstill. Shifting gears is as much of a distraction as steering the car or applying the brake. It’s a subconcious, natural action. Furthermore, people who take the time to learn to operate a manual transmission are more concerned about the workings of their cars, more interested in having greater control over it, and likely to be better drivers overall. It’s the distracted idiots talking on their phones in the monstrous, unnecessary trucks that GM makes that you should worry about.

  • avatar
    Bob Elton

    Amazing, people are still reading the old stuff!

    I have had lots of stick shift cars, and I still have one that has a completely NON-synchro tranmission. I’d like to see some of the self-styled “experts” that write scathing replies try to drive that one.

    So, I wrote this column out of pervisity and bull-headedness, perhaps, but not ignorance.

  • avatar
    josh

    This is such a load of shitty writing and flawed premises.

    “Although this research didn’t examine the role of the manual transmission, its potential risks are patently obvious. Operating a manual transmission is an inherently difficult and dangerous procedure???”

    Though I have no data, I’ll say the conclusion is obvious…
    Shifting is as much of a distraction as turning on the lights or the wipers. If you disagree, feel free to cite some study. Otherwise, it’s patently obvious that you’re talking out of your ass.

    “At the same time, neither foot is available for instantaneous braking.”

    Starting from a standstill and neither foot is available for instantaneous braking? How often do you have to stop while already stopped? You know when else neither foot is available for instantaneous braking? When you’re parked and retrieving things from your trunk. Obviously no car should have a trunk.

    “Listening to the engine can distract the driver from important auditory stimuli (e.g. approaching emergency vehicles), while watching the tachometer removes his eyes from the road.”

    An excellent argument against radios, spedometers, dashboard displays and air conditioning (the loud noise of which may distract from emergency vehicles). Or an empty objection from someone trying to bolster a hollow case? That seems a little more likely.

    “The lack of a foot available for the brake pedal is even more critical since the car is now moving faster, and the driver is now steering with one hand.”

    Perhaps that’s why they don’t put the clutch pedal in the back seat. This is like arguing that the accelerator is detrimental to driving because it takes up the operative foot, leaving people unable to brake. Unless you’re one of those ambipederous drivers who hits the brakes with their left foot?

    “Heaven help the chicken that decides to cross the road in front of a driver using a manual transmission.”

    Ah yes, because it’s nigh impossible to stop a manual transmission! You’ve proved this with your DATA. And certainly, the rapid deceleration available through engine braking, where the foot is simply removed from the accelerator is a figment of the manual transmission lobby. I drive a manual and an automatic every single day, and I can stop much more quickly with the manual. Perhaps your lack of coordination might be better traced to inner ear disorders than the transmission?

    “In real-world operation, manual cars never get mileage as good as a comparable automatic. ”

    Again, flat out false. My father drives the same Civic that I do, only I drive with a manual. I consistently get better mileage. Again, you’re generalizing from your lack of skill to impugn those of us who are not idiots.

    “The driver slips the shifter into drive and presses the accelerator. He’s free to carve a corner without reacting to changes in vehicle speed or conditions by removing his right foot from the gas pedal. The transmission’s electronic control system monitors the vehicle’s speed, lateral and longitudinal acceleration; the steering wheel position and acceleration; and changes gear ratios accordingly.”

    Or doesn’t. The more likely occurance is that the automatic stays in the same gear and lacks the acceleration to properly corner. The only way that you get the same level of control while driving is by placing the absolute worst manual driver against the most sophisticated automatic transmission.

    “Why do enthusiasts cling to manuals when the safety and efficiency drawbacks are so obvious, and the alternative automatic transmission so well developed? Sometimes it’s ignorance. Many enthusiasts have never driven a car equipped with a state-of-the-art automatic transmission, complete with electronics that adapt to the sporting driver’s shifting preferences. More often the attitude is rooted deep in the car enthusiast’s psyche: ‘I want to be in control’ or ‘It connects me more intimately with the car’. Strip away the human vs. mechanical rationale and Zen posturing and all that remains is simple, willful resistance to change and progress.”

    Well, that and I can take a top of the line Corvette Ze around an F-1 course about two seconds faster with a manual than I can with an automatic. I can shift proactively rather than reactively, and maximize the gear ratio to what I want to do at that exact instant. And I’d be willing to bet that had I ever taken my Civic to the track against my father’s, the difference would be even higher.

    The only thing that you’re right about is the manual-shift automatics not being up to par, though I’d imagine that they’ll continue to advance.

    What I will say after all of this is that this shouldn’t be taken as an unrepentant defense of manuals in all situations. The times that I love being in an automatic are the long stretches of stop and go traffic jams, where shifting into first a hundred times an hour just makes me frustrated. But you could have saved yourself a lot of typing if you had just instead written “I don’t like manuals” and not tried to bolster your opinion with a bunch of bullshit.

  • avatar
    blalor

    Right on, Josh. This article’s been bugging me for months and I just couldn’t work up the bother to tear it to bits like you have. Well done.

  • avatar
    K15

    Agree with Josh. I read this article a few months ago and it bugged me too.

    Fact is, 95% of modern, computer controlled autos are NOT much more sophisticated than old, mechanically controlled autos (with vacuum or throttle cable). At most, the computer manages fluid pressure, shift length/harshness and some other stuff. NO computer can look ahead and see a curve to the right, continuing road and a sharp left and KNOW that the driver will take the curve to the right and shift accordingly to provide maximum acceleration through the curve. NO computer can EVER do that, until computers can read human thoughts. Autos almost always have one less gear than the manual counterpart. In cars modern enough to have 5 speed autos, typically have 6 speed manual counterparts. There are more parasitic losses in an auto (even with the TCC).
    With manuals, it’s more difficult to accelerate hard without wanting to. Unless you want to light up the tires, it’s impossible to accelerate from a stop with more than the slightest touch on the gas very often (without smelling clutch). This will save gas. When I drive autos, I have a tendency to hit the gas harder than necessary, to get going quickly. With manuals, the same can be done with faster clutch engagement. But with manuals, I don’t do it often because when I do, I think “ok, I just wore the clutch a bit more there”.
    Manuals are MUCH less expensive to repair, in the event of problems. Where the failure of modern, 5 speed automatics in Japanese cars will cost $1500 at the minimum to repair, it’s much cheaper to repair the most common manual transmission problems (synchro problems).

    He also left out the very real fact that manual transmission cars ARE more fun to drive than automatic cars. I would much rather drive a 130 horsepower 5 speed Mazda MX-3 than a 250 horsepower automatic family car.

    Plus, there is complete control over the power getting to the wheels. Two ways of controlling it. Clutch work and amount of throttle. In snow and ice, I can allow the SLIGHTEST bit of power to the wheels, to creep a little bit in snow. With autos, deep snow will keep them from idle-creeping and the TC will often dump too much torque to the wheels when the gas is touched.

  • avatar
    georgeo

    Okay I am only 16 and I drive a manual and I totally disagree with the article. 1. If you need to press the brake all you have to do is push in the clutch and press the brake with your foot that was on the gas pedal. 2. If you are shift gears your right hand is off the steering wheel for like maybe 2 seconds at the most! 3. If you come up on a curve most people (even if your driving and automatic) slow down before the curve not in it so both hands are typically on the steering wheel through a curve…Next time your going to write an article about something…make sure your doing it the proper way!

  • avatar
    funnybooboo

    Americans have about 90% automatics, but Europeans have about 90% sticks. If sticks were really so dangerous, then Europeans must have a much higher accident rate, correct?

    Let’s look at the actual accident statistics.

    We see that Americans are somewhere in the middle when it comes to per mile road deaths. Better than Italy, worse than Britain. No immediate evidence of a huge excess risk from driving stick.

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    I’ve enjoyed this blog so much that over several days I’ve waded all the way back here, sampling topics of interest. Evidently, TTAC has been growing wiser, because I had to look back all this way to find two articles so ill-informed and loosely tethered to reality (The diesel article on this page is almost as bad).

    Show me the driver who must watch the tach to shift properly, and I’ll show you either a first-day driver’s ed student or a drag racer trying to eke out the last drop of performance. For the rest of us, shifting somewhere between 2000 and 3000 rpm will do fine, thanks.

    I’d like to know what cars get better mileage with an autobox. Certainly not my wife’s VW TDI. Check TDI blogs for endless laments about auto-equipped cars getting “poor” mileage (ours rarely touches 40 mpg), while the manual cars flirt with 50 mpg.

    The trouble with driving today’s cars isn’t that they’re too difficult; they’re too easy. We’ve lost the wind on the face, and most engine sounds to the pursuit of luxury. Take away the mechanical chore of shifting, and there goes one more reminder that we’re not just passively watching a video pass by on that big-screen TV behind the steering wheel.

    Manual-shift drivers are blessed with cars that actually need our intervention and judgement for smooth forward progress. We’re encouraged to look ahead down the road and predict what will happen. A hill? A corner? Looks like 3rd gear, or 2nd coming up? That’s the best defense against distracted driving. The consequences of a shifting mistake, like gear grinding or stalling, are much less severe than a collision. My manual-shift car (can’t call them “standard” shifts anymore, can we?) helps keep my head in the game, and that’s important.

    Then there are the towing issues. I tow a Scamp fiberglass trailer with my Forester. The car performs beautifully as I utilize 80% of the car’s tow rating. The performance envelope shrinks to the capabilities of a well-tuned VW Beetle, of course, but the car runs all day with no overheating, and the heater works. If the car had an automatic, the tow rating would drop by 400 lbs. I’d be riding the brakes down every Colorado mountain pass (as it is, my first set of pads lasted 60,000 miles). On the uphills, I’d be fretting over transmission fluid temps even after paying to install an accessory cooler. Soon, I’m sure, I’d be trading up to a thirsty V-6 in a larger SUV I didn’t really want, because of the power lost to the auto drivetrain. Did you ever try to find a mid-size SUV with a manual?

  • avatar
    carloss

    Wheatridger wrote: “Manual-shift drivers are blessed with cars that actually need our intervention and judgement [...] That’s the best defense against distracted driving.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Driving a stick not only encourages me to anticipate the road ahead but also forces to *not* talk on my cell phone.

  • avatar
    jgc

    Bob, so, you have had lots of stick-shift cars, huh? Nice. And you still drive them like the way you describe in this article? Wow. No wonder you hate driving a stick. I would hate it too, if after many years and many stick-shift cars later, I’m still driving like that. So many gears and so many pedals, how can anyone know what they’re doing?! I completely understand.

    And, oh, by the way, I have to admit my ignorance, I have been driving both automatic and stick using my right foot for both the gas and the break pedals. I didn’t know that in an automatic you have to use the left foot for the breaks. Thanks for the safety tip!

  • avatar
    roman116

    “So, I wrote this column out of pervisity and bull-headedness, perhaps, but not ignorance.” – Bob Elton

    This article was definately written with ignorance. Due to the torque converter, the output shaft of the engine is spinning faster then the input shaft to the transmission. At higher speeds, the transmission catches up to the engine, eventually moving at almost the same speed. Ideally, though, the transmission would move at exactly the same speed as the engine, because this difference in speed wastes power.

    With a manual transmission, so long as the clutch is not slipping, the output shaft of the motor and the input shaft to the transmission are turning at a 1:1 ratio. This is part of the reason why cars with manual transmissions get better gas mileage than cars with automatic transmissions.

  • avatar
    DarkSpork

    I know this is an old forgotten post, but I stumbled upon it while looking for a different post.
    I have never driven a car with an SMG, DSG or any other fancy automatic.  The electronically controlled automatics are the newest ones I have used and are generally slow to downshift or otherwise respond to user input. The reason I don’t like automatics is because I have had an automatic transmission fail either while I am driving or somebody else is driving a half a dozen times in the past two years. I have not had a manual transmission fail once.
    On the distraction front,  manual transmissions keep drivers from becoming distracted by more dangerous distractions such as cell phones, mp3 players, etc. Shifting is a reflex to me like braking or steering, if it’s an unfamiliar car I shift by feel rather than sound or using the tachometer; different engines have different shift points.
    Many automatics I have driven are more distracting than manual transmissions as I have found myself lifting my foot off the gas and hoping for the transmission to upshift. Some of the automatics I’ve driven you have to lift off the gas exactly the right amount to get it to upshift, otherwise it will hold the gear it’s in. I hate automatics, a lot of them are unreliable garbage.

  • avatar
    potatobreath

    Wow, this is old.
    roman forgot about the modern lockup torque converters that give the automatic the fuel saving 1:1 ratio. The only time it’s not locked up is near a standstill in the bottom gears; the torque converter multiplies torque at very very low RPM.

  • avatar
    jburgie

    My wife’s car has a shushbox with a manual-shift feature. I’ve tried it. I hate it. Give me a car with a stick and a clutch any day. As another responder said, there is no computer in earth that knows you’re two seconds away from a sharp left turn. It’s a lot more difficult to yack on your cell when you have to shift gears.  As for Mr. Elton, if he lacks the coordination to operate a manual transmission, he might want to consider calling a cab.

  • avatar
    southernwood

    I’m new here, found this page with a search query. The same search the brought me here also found some formal experimental results suggesting that driving manual transmissions helps ADHD adolescents to focus more on their driving, AND appears to cause them to drive more safely. (http://jad.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/10/2/212) Somehow or other ;), this suggests to me that the greater involvement required to drive a manual transmission does not translate into “dangerous distraction”.

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this research is confirmed by future research. I’ve owned just 4 cars in 34 years of driving, putting over 500,000 miles on them. All of those cars have been manuals. My insurance company, which I’ve been with for decades, really likes my driving a lot. I think that driving manual transmissions has contributed to that by keeping me more involved with my car and my driving, both by what it physically requires and also by making driving much more fun and interesting.

    I have also wondered in light of the recent Toyota recall whether the sudden acceleration problem would have resulted in less harm if most people had manuals and knew how to drive them. I am accustomed to using my motor to brake, and since I always use the “parking brake” when I park, I am very aware of the fact that I have a second “emergency brake. I also know that if my car ever surged out of control that my right foot would go immediate to the brake, AND that my left foot would depress the clutch within 1 second of that – all second nature. Unless there is something I’m missing, there is no good reason for any car surging out of control for more than a couple of seconds even if it is an automatic, because the car can be put into neutral – except that people who exclusively drive automatics aren’t used to doing things like that and may not think of it in an emergency.

    I’ve long half-joked that automatics should only be available to people with a doctor’s note because of dangerous tendencies like the way they surge forward as soon as the brake pedal comes up. I dunno, maybe I’ll only be one-quarter joking in the future?

    FWIW, I’m a middle-aged woman, which I thought would put me in a small minority of manual drivers. However, I think I know at least as many women who drive stick as men. I was talking to another woman I’ve known for quite a while just last night (she cuts my hair), and found out that she also far prefers manuals. One reason she cited is that when she has to drive an automatic she misses the physical movement involved in a manual. I hadn’t thought about it before but, same here. I wonder how much of a role that plays with the ADHD adolescents? And with loss of attention in driving generally? In America, motor vehicles in general seem to be judged “better” by how closely they resemble the living room couch – a fine place for a nap.

    OK, I’m done with my ramblings … bye.

  • avatar
    TheHockeytowner

    This article is complete garbage. “The fine art of driving an automatic transmission”? Mr. Elton, you must be joking, because that is a very humorous statement. I fail to see any display of fine art, skill, or coordination in putting a gear selector in D and pushing the gas pedal.

    And your only defense is to challenge so-called “enthusiasts” to drive a non-synchro manual? What does that even prove, that synchro manuals are better than non-synchro? Great, that’s true, but it doesn’t translate to automaticss are better than manuals, by any stretch.

  • avatar
    JonathanAldrich

    Something not mentioned above is the quality of the ride. We have been car shopping this week, and I have driven a number of automatics, some in quite nice cars. None of them shift gears anywhere near as smoothly as I can with a stickshift. There is always a jerk, and it comes at an unpredictable interval after I press on the gas. This happens whether I press the gas hard or slowly and smoothly. On the other hand, with careful use of the clutch I can shift a manual smoothly enough that a passenger would hardly be aware that it is happening. Perhaps someday the technology will make shifting equally transparent, but current automatic transmissions are very far from that ideal.

  • avatar
    stickittou

    The writer prefers automatics these days over standard so he had to come up with bunch of half baked reasons to justify a preference. The notion that person driving a auto is more alert is just really pretty dumb. Probably true for some poor divers with limited mental facilities that can not chew bubble gum and drive at same time. Driving standard forces you to be more alert, in control and having one hand on the wheel for one second during a shift is hardly dangerous. People driving a automatic are more likely to be talking on the phone ect. When driving a manual I’m more focused at the task. If the writer has experience driving manuals without syncros then he must be getting pretty old, maybe that is his problem.

  • avatar
    timoteo

    It is now 2013 and some of Bob Elton’s comments are more true than they were when he first wrote this post.

    new automatics now have six or eight gears and predictions are that they will gain a few more gears over the next few years so the automatic is more likely to be in the right gear at the right time. I test drove a 2013 VW Passat turbo-diesel recently and at the end of the test drive the salesman asked me if I noticed how it shifted. I said, “no, I never felt it shift at all”. That is a far cry from relatively sloppy automatics of old. It has

    Some cars now actually do get better mileage with a six or eight speed computer-controlled dual-clutch automatic than they do with a manual transmission.

    However, when Bob says, “a properly sorted automatic is always in the correct gear, never makes a mistake”, is still not true. They’re getting better, though. Automatics run by computers will always make mistakes, because flawed humans write the code that runs these computers. As someone else pointed out, they can’t predict what you’re going to do next – they can’t read your mind.

    sticks are a distraction? The worse distraction is that almost every driver you see on the road today as a cell phone glued to their ear while driving, and some people even try to text while they drive! I don’t find my stick a distraction. Once I get used to the way the stick drives in a new car, shifting is unconscious.

    All that said, Ferrari and Lamborghini have dropped manual transmission from their cars. BMW is dropping the stick from next year’s M5 model. Porsche will no longer offer a manual transmission on the 911 Turbo. The 2014 Porsche 911 Turbo will be available only with a seven-speed automated manual transmission.

    Yet for all the nice features of automatics, I still love sticks. I’ve always driven sticks. I like the “feel”, I like being able to shift when -I- want rather than when the computer wants. I just bought a new car and it has a 6-speed stick. I just hope I can sell it in five or ten years. By then, kids starting to drive may ask, “what was a ‘stick shift’?”, and there may not be -any- cars with stick shifts made.

    Goodbye, stick shift. I’ll miss you.


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