Op-Ed by Paul Wimsett and Andy Bunch
The old joke among generation X and Baby Boomers is that you can completely handicap a millennial by taking away their cellphone, giving them a manual transmission and writing the directions in cursive. Well, if you are want to understand gearshifts but don’t want to appear foolish by asking about it, here’s the skinny. Sorry, here’s the 4-1-1.
Those of us who grew up with gear shits are united by a common memory having the driver reach over and invade your space every time they needed to change a gear—which is pretty much all the time. The worst was the pickup trucks, which often had bench seats. If you had to fit in three people, and you lost the ro sham bo, you had to sit in the middle and move your legs all the time.
When car makers developed the automatic transmission, they moved the gear selector to the steering column which improved life immensely. As car makers increasingly started installing bucket seats in the front most modern cars have a “gear selectors” which looks like a gear shift, but instead of manually operating a physical gear box the way a manual stick shift does, it merely selects the gear for the automatic transmission.
(On a side note: some high end sports models allow for a manual operation of the automatic transmission by adding functionality to the gear selector.)
But by far, the biggest difference between manual and automatic is the amount of time it takes when first learning to drive a car.
To Operate a Manual
Since we know all of you can already drive a stick I know you’ll all be skipping this section, but just in case you don’t know how…
In order to engage the engine the driver must depress a pedal on the floor, called a clutch pedal. This disengages the engine from the drive train which powers the wheels. With the clutch depressed the driver must select a gear and slowly release the clutch while applying some gas to keep the engine from dying while it must re-engage the drive train. It’s a bit of an art form, officially known as “feathering the clutch.”
The difficulty of feathering the cutch goes up exponentially when you’re attempting to start on a hill. The dreaded “hill start” is so bad because the moment you depress the clutch the car begins to roll backwards. The answer to going uphill is getting the engine engaged quickly. So effectively the driver must engage the engine before the car runs into another car behind it, but not so quickly that it kills the engine instantly.
If everything is going well there should be a slight vibration. Only now should you release the clutch pedal. Should you wish to accelerate further continue to take your foot off the foot pedal and put your other foot on the accelerator pedal.
Do you always need a gear shaft?
Not necessarily – sports cars often have levers known as paddles. One paddle shifts up a gear and the other down. Formula One cars also have paddles but they are mounted on the steering wheel. This complicated procedure is definitely not suited for the amateur and even paddles haven’t made their way into the mainstream. However, paddle shifter on the steering wheel in place or a gear selector on an automatic transmission has made it into the mainstream, but this isn’t the same thing as a true paddle shift.
It can be hard for those with either limited mobility or arthritis to operate a manual gearshift because it requires a certain amount of force. Instead a special adaption needs to be made or purchased. One way that they work is pressing a comfort handle rather than adjusting the gearshaft itself. Clearly an automatic transmission is way to go, depending on your disability.
Automatic Transmissions have proven themselves reliable and simple to operate. They are easier to learn to operate and make the entire process of learning to drive simpler. They can also reduce driver fatigue for city, stop-and-go, driving.
So are Manual Transmissions Obsolete?
Not exactly! Manual transmissions are a bit more fuel efficient, because a human intelligence can keep the engine in neutral at stop lights. Most stunt drivers agree that manuals give them better performance when precision moves are required. Other than heavy traffic, most drivers who know how to operate a “stick” prefer them over automatic.
Here’s the real difference that no one really talks about. An automatic transmission is a complicated thing. It’s more likely to breakdown and when it does, it’s more expensive to fix. The other issue is that manual transmissions can be rebuilt from pretty simple parts. It’s possible to get these parts long after that particular car is no longer manufactured.
Automatic transmissions are so complicated inside that rebuilding them isn’t cheap and soon the internal parts aren’t available for order. Then the only source of a replacement transmission is a junk yard. Even the junk yard becomes difficult eventually. How soon depends on the popularity of the vehicle you bought, but generally things start getting hard to find after 10 or 12 years.
So when you buy an automatic you’re basically buying a car with a shelf life, which seems counter to the ethics of most environmentally conscious millennials.