The Vanishing Manual Transmission

By Sam Shikora.

The development of automotive technology in recent years has led to more efficient, more environmentally friendly, better performing and safer vehicles.

However, today’s cars provide a much lower level of connection between driver and car. Systems like electric power steering and more prevailingly, the automatic transmission, have taken much of the mechanical sensation and, to some, the pleasure out of driving.

A recent Google survey showed that about 58.8% of Americans know how to operate a manual transmission. However, in 2013, less than 4% of all new cars sold in the US were equipped with a manual transmission. In comparison, toward end of the 1980s Oil Glut, manual transmissions were found in about 29% of all new cars.

Instead, today’s US-bound vehicles are sold with one of three sub-types of automatic transmission: the continuously variable transmission (CVT), the older and most common torque converter automatic, and the dual-clutch transmission (DCT).

The lack of sales of the manual transmission in the US can be explained by the advantages brought by modern automatics. Bill Griffith, an automotive reporter for the Boston Globe, says that today’s automatics exhibit “better gas mileage, competitive pricing, more convenience for a generation of drivers who never learned to drive a manual, and are easier to deal with in today’s congested urban areas,” than comparable manuals.

Some argue that generational differences have led to the disappearance of the manual. Specifically, older, unreliable manuals left a bad taste in the mouths of those from previous generations.

Griffith says that even some of the most commonly implemented automatic transmissions were riddled with issues.

“You used to worry about seals leaking, torque-converter problems, ‘bands’ breaking and the like. I remember when the old ‘70s Chevy 3-speed failed. When we dropped the [transmission fluid] pan, there was a pile of silver sludge in the bottom. You just don’t see that happening now,” said Griffith.

Experiences with older automatics, like Griffith’s, are well documented. Because of the collection of various metallic shavings soaked in automatic transmission fluid (ATF) that collected in the fluid pans of so many older torque converter-type automatics, they became referred to in slang as “slushboxes”.

Today, in the most reliable era of automobiles ever, automakers are constantly developing transmissions that are conducive to greater fuel economy, in order to meet government regulated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

Many transmissions are developed to have more gear ratios to allow for both optimum fuel economy and power output, since engine power is parabolic and begins to decrease at a specific engine speed for all engines.

One transmission that has recently taken off is the continuously variable transmission. The CVT keeps a vehicle’s engine in its “sweet spot”, where it produces the most power while burning the least fuel. In comparison to other transmissions physically limited to a certain number of gears ratios, the CVT can hypothetically replicate any gear ratio.

Like the original automatics, it was met with backlash when it first debuted, which many said was due to a lack of performance and an unknown, foreign feeling for the driver.

While some of this cynicism still exists today, and is typically directed at CVTs produced by car companies such as Nissan, some are optimistic about the future of the CVT.

Robert Sorokanich, the Online News Editor for automotive magazine Road & Track, says that the CVT is the most sensible transmission design from a technological standpoint.

He says, “The problem is that every person driving a car today learned to drive on a car with a traditional transmission, either automatic or manual, that shifted between a given number of gears,” he said.

“We all grew used to the sound of an engine’s revolutions climbing, then falling, and then climbing again, with every gearshift. Compared to that, the way CVTs drive, with engine revolutions staying relatively the same while the car accelerates, is unsettling,” Sorokanich adds.

During the 1973 Oil Crisis, when oil prices rose enough to force automakers to focus on fuel economy, many automatic transmissions had as few as two or three gears.

Surprisingly, Europe, as well as most other regions of the world, has followed this trend to the same extent that the US has, despite the clear advantages of today’s automatics described by Griffith.

Ron Cogan, Editor and Publisher of Green Car Journal, says that this phenomenon also comes as a result of longstanding traditions.

“For a long time, European and Japanese markets favored four-cylinder engines while American drivers preferred V-8, and ultimately, V-6 and then four-cylinder engines. This evolution in the U.S. has largely been driven by the need to deliver optimum efficiency. The popularity of manual transmissions in Europe has historically been a reflection of the efficiency advantages of manuals in earlier years,” Cogan said.

“Even though automatics now have the efficiency advantage, many drivers in Europe still opt for manual transmissions as a personal preference.”

Sorokanich argues that in addition to the legacies of 1950s-70s manual-equipped cars in Europe, the region has not given up manuals as a result of physical layout of European urban areas.

“Most American cars are built for the kind of driving people do in the Midwest: flat, straight, uneventful highway commuting, on wide, uncrowded roads, fueled by cheap gasoline,” Sorokanich said.

“The typical European car of the era had a small body powered by a small engine. Automatic transmissions were very inefficient, wasting a lot of the engine’s power in friction instead of transferring it to the road.”

Sorokanich adds, “with a tiny engine, you can’t afford to lose a lot of that power to an inefficient automatic—you’ll end up with a car that’s painfully slow. And think about fuel prices, which have almost always been much higher in Europe. If a manual transmission offered better acceleration and better fuel economy, you’d be much more likely to choose it,” he said.

Still, in both the US and Europe, the venerated manual can be found on many specialized performance vehicles. Although marques Ferrari and Lamborghini have made the decision to cease the production of manual equipped vehicles, well-known supercars like the Chevrolet Corvette, Audi R8 and Porsche 911 can still be bought with a traditional manual.

Like other transmissions, these transmissions have been profoundly modernized as well, as ` they feature more gears than ever and many technologies designed to increase efficiency.

Of course, even most performance cars can still be bought with automatics, in the form of DCTs. Sorokanich says that these DCTs include some of the highest performing transmissions available due to their ability to change gears almost instantaneously.

Richard Truett, the technology and engineering reporter for automotive newspaper Automotive News, says that the manual transmission may not be vanishing, but instead emerging in a different form.

“You can look at the dual-clutch transmission as a manual transmission that has been developed beyond the traditional manual gearbox,” he said.

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