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 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.
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.
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.