The end of manual transmission

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I drive a shifter. It’s a pain sometimes. Gearing up and shifting in bumper-to-bumper traffic wears you out. My wife can’t drive my car, which limits our public transportation options. And when I’m driving, I can’t hold a delicious cold slush in one hand, at least not safely. But despite the drawbacks, I like a manual transmission. I like the feeling that I am Operating my car, not just driving it. That’s why I’ve driven shifters for the past 20 years.

This streak may soon be over. When it comes time to replace my current car, I probably won’t be able to buy another like this. In 2000, more than 15% of new and used cars sold by automotive retailer CarMax were fitted with gear sticks; by 2020, this figure threw at 2.4 percent. Among the hundreds of new car models for sale in the United States this year, only about 30 can be purchased with a manual transmission. Electric cars, which today represent more than 5 percent car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. There are rumors that Mercedes-Benz is planning to withdraw textbooks entirely by the end of next year, anywhere in the world, in a decision partially driven by electrification; Volkswagen is said to be giving up its own by 2030, and other brands are sure to follow. Shifters have long been a niche market in the United States. Soon they will disappear.

We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, the decline of the baton has been publicly lamented. Car and driver ran a “Save manualscampaign in 2010, insisting that drivers who “learned to use the whole car” would enjoy driving more and do it better. A #SaveTheManual hashtag followed. Shifting gears yourself is not only a source of pleasure, it is defenders said, or a way to refine your ride. A manual car is also less likely to be stolen if fewer people know how to drive it. It’s cheaper to buy (or at least it was), and the operating and maintenance costs were once lower. You can push start a manual if the battery runs out, so you’re less likely to get stuck somewhere; and you can use the stick more easily to engine brakingwhich can reduce wear and make descents easier and safer.

But the main appeal of the manual transmission stems from the feeling it gives the driver: a feeling, real or imagined, that he or she is in control. According to business consultant-turned-motorcycle repairman-turned-bestselling author Matthew Crawford, attending to this sense isn’t just an assignment. Humans develop tools that aid in locomotion, such as domesticated horses and carriages, bicycles, and cars, and then expand their consciousness to these tools. The driver is “one” with the machine, as they say. In his 2020 book, Why we drive, Crawford argues that a device becomes a prosthesis. The rider merges with the horse. To move the tool is to move oneself.

Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is only possible when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re using. Just as a rider must sense the gait of the horse, a driver must also sense the torque of the engine. But modern car technology tends to inhibit that feeling. Power steering, electronic fuel injection, anti-lock braking systems and, yes, automatic transmissions hamper the “natural links between action and perception,” Crawford writes. They inhibit the operator’s ability to interpret the state and capabilities of the car through a healthy feedback loop of actions and information. To illustrate the point, he tells a story about testing a 400-hp Audi RS3 with all the options, including a paddle-shift automatic transmission. He was powerful and capable, he says, but “I couldn’t connect with the car.” This description is common among gearheads, a way of expressing that the human operator and the machine are out of sync.

The shifter became a proxy object for this loss. When manual transmissions were the norm, drivers had to touch and manipulate the shift lever, in tandem with the clutch, constantly while driving a vehicle. Passengers saw this action unfold and the shifting became imbued with meaning. It represented the allure of the road, for all its good and bad sides, and replaced the human control of a big, hot, dangerous machine screeching on the pavement. The impending demise of the manual transmission is worrisome not (only) because shifting is fun and sensual, but also because shifting is – or was – a powerful cultural symbol of the human body working in unison with the world of engineering.

Crawford admits he could connect with the Audi if he put enough hours behind the wheel. But even knowing that, “the car left me cold,” he wrote. That’s partly because the coarse feedback one gets from driving an all-electronic vehicle can be – or seem – too subtle for a crude human mind. Cars have somehow become too good. Human understanding slips from their surface, like ice from a hot hood.

The decoupling of humans from their driving machines will accelerate in the years to come. If the automatic transmission has made the shifter a monument to loss of control, the autonomous (self-driving) vehicle aims to do the same for the steering wheels. At this point, the loss will be so complete that it may not be so alienating. Any pretense that the automobile is a prosthesis will be eliminated, so that the passengers of the car can move on. Like people on a train, they can settle into a book, take a nap, or open an Excel spreadsheet.

But fully self-driving cars may never see widespread use, and even most self-driving cars may still be a long way off. In the meantime, the auto industry will take control away from drivers in slow, cumbersome steps, just as other industries have done for other devices, appliances, and services. Now you can flush the toilet or operate a sink not with the strength of your hands, but through sensors. Web and product searches return the results that some third parties want you to see, rather than the best matches to your requests. Maps, now digital, show points of interest instead of raw information; travelers let the apps that host these maps tell them where to go and how to get there. Customer service agents follow scripts to solve your problems, your doctors follow automatic diagnostic patterns, and the streaming platforms on your TV calculate what shows you should watch next.

People lamented the decline of the shifter for years before the “Save the Manuals” campaign (and the hashtag, and merchandise) has turned. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that the formal crusade erupted just as computing overtook culture, orienting human lives towards the needs of tech companies and data aggregators. At that time, all the apps and services we just mentioned (and many more) became widespread.

The manual transmission, however marginal it has become in the era of the smartphone, remains a vestige of direct and mechanical control. When a driver changes gears, their intention can be fruitfully translated into rewarding action, engaging literal speeds. Even when your hand slips and the gears creak, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.

To lament the end of the manual transmission is to praise more than just changing gears. When the manual dies, little about the ride will drop that hasn’t already been lost. But we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there’s still an essential everyday device that you can actually feel Operating. Even if you don’t own a staff, or don’t know how to ride one, its mere existence signals that more embodied technology is possible – that it was once common, even – and that humans and machines can really commune. The shifter is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon leave behind.

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