Manual Transmissions Are Dying: How We Lost Touch With the Clutch

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Let’s face it, Americans are out of touch with their clutch. A report by Fox News shows that only 10% of vehicles manufactured in North America were equipped with a manual transmission in 2014, and according to the consulting firm IHS Automotive, it is only going to get worse. This is in stark contrast to numbers from 1980, when U.S. auto makers were equipping around 35% of all vehicles with a manual gearbox. But as the “auto-tragic transmission” continued to gain in popularity the shift from classic gearboxes to slush boxes, and according to Jack Nerad, the senior editor at Kelley Blue Book, “Improvements in the function and fuel economy of automatic transmissions have essentially killed the manual in the U.S.”

This isn’t just some overnight phenomenon, but a very long and slow death rattle, with personal preference playing more of a role than need. Automatic transmissions began their hostile takeover in 1939, when General Motors began equipping Oldsmobiles with them. And while they may have not been able to best stick-shifts in fuel efficiency, they more than made up for it in the convenience department. But today’s manual transmissions don’t even have a fuel economy advantage anymore, and the only real advantages they have over automatics is that they are typically cheaper.

The motorsport side of things is losing a lot of gearboxes as well, and even though Volkswagen boasts that half of the GTIs it sells in the U.S. are manuals, road-rippers like the Lamborghini Aventador and Nissan’s GT-R are all automatics. Motoring points out that this is primarily due to the fact that modern sequential-shift dual-clutch transmissions have the ability to run through gears far faster and more efficiently than a human ever can, and that stomping on a pedal for each and every gear shift wastes precious time and leaves a large amount of room for human error.

It may be hard to swallow, but manuals no longer give us more control than a modern automatic, and if you want engine braking, automatics can deliver that too now. Automatics are also good off-road, when a mistimed gear change could get you stuck. They also are good for hybrid power efficiency, and they keep turbos spooling on diesel-powered vehicles. Manuals are officially considered outdated technology as automatics now have the ability to provide greater performance, fuel-economy, and control.

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

So how bad have things really gotten out there for fans of manual gearboxes? Pretty bad considering Car and Driver had to launch a campaign called “Save the Manuals” to raise some sort of alarm. Motor Authority is appalled as well, wailing that “only [7%] of vehicles sold last year were stick” and that as car enthusiasts we need to be teaching kids how to drive one just like our parents did with us back in the day.

I, for one, wholeheartedly support this notion, because being able to drive a stick when the chips are down and an emergency is afoot means you have the ability to save the day and maybe even someone’s life. There also is the whole “being in touch with your car” bit, and while we cannot argue that modern autos are inferior in any way, we feel that they do put us out of touch with the pulse of a car. Automatic slush boxes give us this underwhelming feeling of numbness, and it makes us wonder why RPMs and a redline are even displayed anymore on most commuter cars like the Camry.

This isn’t just me bashing automatics because I think they are boring, I fully appreciate them for what they have to offer the average driver: a low-stress driving alternative. There are millions of moms out there who need to keep one hand available for motherly duties while cruising down the interstate, and having to concern themselves with downshifting is something they shouldn’t ever have to worry about. And speaking of shifting, I can’t name single person who doesn’t dread being stuck on a sharp incline with a Porsche in front of them and an Audi behind them. There is a far more significant margin of error out there for manually-driven transmissions, and we totally get why people shy away from them.

But benefits aside, it is still going to be a sad day when the last manual car gets produced. Autonomously driven vehicles will aid in their extinction, since most Americans despise the daily commute, preferring a car to handle the driving for them. They abhor the whole process and all of the stress that goes with it, and every time I leave the house I see dozens of drivers who look absolutely miserable behind the wheel. I think they just might need a high-revving manual in order to inject some fun back into that droll drive.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.