The Death of the Stick – Why Manual Transmissions May Soon Be History

Wait…what! This is supposed to be a motorsports blog with racing minded people and this goes completely against everything I’ve ever known and believed in when it concerns performance cars! Well, I’m going to let you know the sad truth right now…people are afraid of change.

That’s right…even a few of my friends that are very performance car oriented were asked the question with a few choices: “So, what do you think I should tackle next?” and the answer given every time with the choices provided was involving the “Death of the Stickshift”. Granted, I think most of them thought that I was meaning that the manual type gearbox should be saved and we would gloriously sing about how we preserved the very roots of performance driving with such an article noting all the merits of the manual gearbox…this is not that article.

Now, let me redeem a little of what I’m saying here and clear up that I believe that everyone should learn to drive a true manual car correctly in their lifetime. There is something that just can’t compare to the experience. Switching gears, using a clutch, and hearing/feeling the engine revs are just one of the human pleasures that is gratifying to one’s soul and cannot be replicated exactly by an automatic or fully computer automated driveline. It also allows you to picture and understand the workings of the engine, rather than just pushing a ‘go’ and a ‘stop’ button with your right foot.

There are websites and petitions out there to “Save the Sticks” and preserve the manual transmissions that are appearing less and less in the automotive industry as time goes on. Porsche is even capitalizing on the advent by specifically advertising a new 911R GT3 version that is purely manual. People are really starting to notice the transition and think that their sports cars are disappearing and the way of automotive life as they know it is ending…well, it isn’t ending. It is evolving.

The concept of technologies that we are seeing today is something that was developed and banned back in the 80s by the FIA (Federation International De L’Automobile) when the Williams team introduced their CVT transmission in the new Formula 1 car they had developed. By turn one, the governing institution had determined that the transmission offered an unfair advantage over other teams as well as aspiring teams due to the sheer speed and transfer of power it provided. That’s right ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at old Formula 1 technology trickling down into the privately owned sector of automobiles that we can all own today.

Yes, it has been slowly starting to change the face of the automobile industry these days, especially when it comes to performance vehicles and exotic brands. BMW had SMG, VW – DSG, Audi – R-Tronic, and Ferrari – F1 Superfast. They all have a hand in it and they are all transferring over to the systems while we see the disappearing of that third pedal. However, look at the level of performance that cars are reaching today. Sequential gearboxes are the standard in race cars these days where it used to only be the top teir factory teams that could afford them. Even the paddle shifters you are seeing behind wheels now to “manually” control the gears were developed by extremely intelligent people involved in the Formula 1 teams that allowed the driver to not have to take his hands off the wheel while shifting!

I know…it scares people that are used to acquainting performance with finding the notch in the next gear position, while coordinating their pedal work to properly shift into the appropriate gear for the situation, making them feel in control of the situation fully while doing so. However, let’s go there…let’s think outside the comfort zone and compare the advantages of such systems that are automated.

VW/Audi Group’s double clutch automatic transmission can engage one bank of gears while disengaging the other, far reducing gear change overlap and increasing speed and smoothness

A sequential type system can switch gears in as little as 50 milliseconds…that’s right, 50 FREAKING MILLISECONDS (about 1/8th the time it takes to blink your eye) and you will have power to the next gearset chosen for the driving situation you are in. A human switching gears on a manual gearbox can’t compare…I mean, even if you are the Stig, you can’t make those shift times on a manual gearbox. This is why the technology had been banned in the FIA originally until a decision on a standard sequential gearbox was decided. It was a breakthrough and nothing else was even close in keeping up with the technology!

We are evolving as humans and as drivers while either on the race track or the public road. Eventually, a good amount of race technology trickles down into commuter cars. Where do you think traction control and anti-lock brake systems came from? BMW directly borrowed technology from their racing program when evolving their DSP systems on the E46 body cars when they added complex algorithms and sensors for both pitch and yaw adjustment.

So, if the cars are developing and evolving, we should be developing and evolving as well. One that does not move along at the pace of a breakneck world is going to be left behind. It is just shear facts that determine the matter. You will always have your nostalgic cars with the notchy manual transmission that fill the void in your driving hobby, but when it comes to evolving with the coming automotive technologies of today, I can say with confidence that the stick shift will soon be a thing of the past.


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8 thoughts on “The Death of the Stick – Why Manual Transmissions May Soon Be History
  1. Chris

    Your article misses the point that those of us who love manuals seek. Yes, technology is better than humans. Yes, the computer and DCT is faster. But it’s not engaging.
    F1 technology seeks one goal: faster lap times. When I drive my car for enjoyment, I have a different goal: pleasure. Pushing a button is boring. The connection between the driver and the machine is broken. I may as well watch a race on TV.
    The CVT is the ultimate example of this. Yes, it’s efficient and great for speed. But have you ever driven anything that saps fun out of a drive as much as a CVT? I’d rather drive a dump truck than a car with one.
    It depends on your goal. Do you want fast numbers? Or just to arrive at your destination with the least amount of involvement necessary? Or, does driving actually excite something inside of you? For me, it’s the journey, not the destination.

    • If you read a little more into the article, you will see that I say something to the effect that there is nothing like the experience of a manual shifter and feeling that connection to the car. As far as a car that I would use on the street and purely for personal pleasure, a stick takes it in my opinion. Now, if you want to be competetive and gain an edge as well as eliminate some human error factors, go with an automated system.

  2. Frank White

    Williams F1 is the glamorous connection. The original mass produced belt-drive car is thanks to DAF of the Netherlands back in the 1950’s, a really nice piece of engineering, truly originating from a engineer’s doodle on the back of an envelope. I did a “nut & bolt” on a 1974 DAF44 and have fond memories of the car. CVT systems offers the possibility of running at constant max torque or max power or max economy or min NVH or NVH avoidance. Today’s incarnation of the technology is commonplace and usually bastardised to operate like a “snatchy” conventional transmission – not clever. If you are interested in the subject, the Torotrak IVT is perhaps the finest solution and has unique properties. Last idea, imagine a vehicle with this type of transmission and an over-ride in the form of a manual stepless twist grip to set the gear ratio, I think that would be fun. FWW

  3. I’m for the experience if working with the car instead of becoming just another passenger.
    Why does anyone not racing want or need a 50ms shift time?
    And what is the logical outcome of the “progress in F1? More and more tech until the vehicle speed, breaking and position are all controlled to absolutely maximize speed and safety, pushed to the limits of physics. The final step might be a person sitting in the cockpit who is just along for the ride. But then, won’t the safety factor, also carried to the extreme, dictate that the “driver” be removed?
    Moderation in all things, including technology and safety.
    Two of my personals mottso are, “Stop abusing safety” and “Face death to fully live”.

  4. Nothing gives pleasure like stick. After shifting from 6th to 5th, 4th and finally 3rd my hand rests on my girlfriend’s lap in the passenger seat. Nothing could replace that kind of transition. Just being environmentally friendly!!!!

  5. All my cars have been sticks and all the above reasons for the stick…but I guess most compelling for me is it takes me back to my childhood when I first learned to drive; it was an old Chevy grain truck when I was 5 or 6 years old. My Dad put the gear in ‘compound’ and said don’t touch it. All I had to do was steer along side while he was on the ‘Poppin Johnny’ bailing hay for our struggling dairy. I remember the biggest smile on his face when at the end of the day I ran up to him yelling….’Daddy Daddy…I found a NEW Gear!!;; sold ever since….

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