Death to The Stick Shift

Bob Elton
by Bob Elton

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.

Bob Elton
Bob Elton

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  • Stickittou Stickittou on May 01, 2012

    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.

  • Timoteo Timoteo on May 30, 2013

    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.

  • Michael S6 Took my car for oil change on Friday and dealership was working on paper. Recently one of the major health care system in our area was hacked and they had to use paper backup for three weeks. What a nightmare.
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  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
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