Last week, two teenage would-be car thieves in Nashville, Tennessee, were thwarted by a manual gearbox. Having stolen a shopper’s keys, they were confronted with a mysterious third pedal and a stick in the floor. With no idea how to make the car move, they ran away in confusion and were later arrested. The news item went on to mention that manual gearboxes are seen as something of a theft deterrent in the US these days.
America, of course, is well known for its love of automatic cars, with “stick shifters” reserved for enthusiasts, experts or general oddballs, but over here we’ve stubbornly hung on to our clutch pedals and gear levers. Automatics have a reputation for guzzling fuel, they’re only fitted to posh cars and anyway, gliding along with an auto box has never been seen as “proper” driving; you don’t even get a full driving licence if you haven’t wrestled a box of cogs and prayed for a forgiving clutch pedal in the driving test.
However, things are changing. There are now several different types of automatic, all of which are much more efficient than the old fashioned three speed boxes fitted to executive cars in the 70s and 80s. Car makers have been eager to convert us to the benefits of auto boxes for a decade or more and there are good reasons for that. Modern engines have good low speed torque, meaning that they pull strongly from quite low engine speed. To get maximum fuel economy you need to keep the engine speed low to minimise losses from friction and various other factors.
The gearbox and engine computers work in partnership to make up-shifts as soon as the engine will be in the high torque range in the higher gear. Computers can do that sort of thing much more accurately and consistently than most of us, so they give the best economy. Far from being gas guzzlers, automatics help car makers get closer to the promised fuel economy figures than the average human with a gear lever – even if it’s still not that close!
Looking to the future, all manufacturers are intending to phase out cars powered only by piston engines over the next decade or so to meet emissions regulations and the UK government’s intention to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040. The replacements will generally be electric cars or hybrids, and you don’t get a manual gearbox on anything with a battery involved in driving the wheels. However, while some are enthusiasts for new technology, lots more are deeply mistrustful and there’s no point in making cars if people don’t want to buy them. The car industry wants as many drivers as possible to get used to two pedals instead of three so that the new technology will feel just a little less strange when a “normal” engine is no longer an option.
So, curious about how quickly we are changing, I visited the Auto Trader web site, since it’s the biggest UK used car sales forum. It turns out that out of 443,000 cars for sale, 153,000 are automatic - around 35%. So, it seems that we are moving quite rapidly to a future where a gear lever will be a distant memory, like a choke or an internal ashtray.
But, if you still feel that autos are not real driving and remain determined to keep skilfully swapping cogs in your manual car until it’s achieved classic status, take heart. At least only thieves over a certain age will be able to steal it!
By Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart's head of technical policy and advice