Saturday, 22 October 2011

The end of the manual transmission

Ferrari, the makers of the thoroughbred sports car, have just announced that they are to stop producing their iconic six speed gated manual transmission.

The manual 'box is being discontinued in favour of their semi-automatic paddle shift because:

#1: Demand from customers for the paddle shift now far outweighs demand for the manual option.  As far back as the 360 F1 Modena model launched in 1999, paddle shift demand was greater than manual.

#2: When desired, the paddle shift 'box allows manual override, where the driver can change gears herself by depressing a paddle just behind the steering wheel.  This means you have the best of both worlds: The convenience of an automatic transmission shifting for you when you feel lazy, and the option of changing gears yourself when the racer in you awakens.

#3: These semi-automatic transmissions are technically speaking, better than manuals.  They change gears much more quickly than a human being is able to and cause minimal damage when doing so.  You won't find any of these high-tech automatic transmissions (VW's DSG is among the most notable) burning out your clutch or missing a gear when it's time to shift.  Furthermore they can be optimised to shift at the perfect time to maximise fuel efficiency or performance.

#4: With cars regularly pushing out more than 400kw of power, the last thing you as a non-racing driver would want is to take one hand of the wheel to change gears mid-corner while doing 250km/h.  With that much power on hand it is also very easy to spin the wheels or burn the clutch.  The modern double clutch automatic gearbox with traction control takes care of all that for you.  You can simply mash the throttle and the car will ensure you make the perfect getaway.

In other words, changing gears is now best left to the car rather than your hands and feet.  It is technically superior and is the reason Formula One cars have had it for years now.

What any real driver will miss though is the interaction and involvement of a manual.  That stick directly translated human physical motion into mechanical energy.  The satisfaction from perfectly co-ordinating your clutch action with the changing of the shift lever is the motoring equivalent of an orgasm.  As great as manual override on a semi-automatic transmission may be, there is still no clutch pedal and there is still no shift shift gate for you to throw.

But there are also less romantic moments with a manual transmission.  When you're tired on the way home from work, automatic does help as it alleviates your left foot and arm.  When manual transmissions simply suck is when you're crawling along in traffic, you know, at that point where traffic is not quite still and you have to keep modulating the clutch with your left foot because traffic isn't moving fast enough to warrant you lifting your foot completely off the clutch.

Yet another point in favour of automatics are that cars are now becoming more and more automated.  Cars like the Mercedes S-Class will apply braking pressure when it senses you're too close to another car.  Vehicles are also learning how to scan road markings and keep you within a lane if you lose concentration and veer into the adjacent lane.  Automated driving, where the car literally does most of the driving, will put another nail into it the coffin of the manual because the computer would need  control of the transmission if it is to effectively slow you down or make a sudden change in direction for you.  Cars are doing more of the driving for you, for safety reasons, and they therefore need to be able to assume full command of the car if they are to be effective.

For decades since the inception of the automobile, manuals were better than automatics in every department: from fuel efficiency to performance  The only thing an automatic had going for it in the past was convenience.     More and more cars are now coming with these double clutch gearboxes that provide repeatedly perfect shifts though.  Finally computer algorithms have surpassed the hand of man, so automatic is the new manual, get used to it.  

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