It’s not that manual transmissions are bad, it’s that automatics are so good

Just the other day I was reading that some teens have given up carjacking because the car they wanted to lift had a manual transmission. First, I thought that they perhaps didn’t know how to drive a car with a manual at all, but then, it hit me. Maybe they gave up the idea of stealing that car because it is much harder to find someone who would actually drive it later.

Now, regardless of my train of thought, I believe that the former is the truth in this very instance. This got me to thinking - how and why is the manual transmission losing the war against automatics? Is it that bad, or are there some dark forces at play here? Why is the manual transmission living on borrowed time?

The Manual Transmission Is Dying Out

Why Is The Manual Transmission Living On Borrowed Time?
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When you put it all down on paper, buyers are definitely the main culprit behind such an incredible drop in manual transmission sales

If you walked into a new car showroom in 1992 and saw four people buying a car, one of them would be driving off in a car with a manual. If you did the same in 2012, no one would be driving off with a manual as only 7 percent of buyers opted for the manual back then. Nowadays, the situation is even bleaker for manuals, and personally, I can come up with a few reasons for the likely demise of manual transmission altogether.

According to Edmunds senior analyst Ivan Drury, who talked about the issue with LA Times, less than 3 percent of buyers in the U.S. actually choose a manual transmission. That was in 2016. Today, that percentage is down to 2. When you put it all down on paper, buyers are definitely the main culprit behind such an incredible drop in manual transmission sales. This led manufacturers to change their approach to the market discontinuing manual options altogether. In 2006, as much as 47 percent of new models were available with a manual. Today, only 20 percent of them - usually entry-level cars and cars powered by engines will low power.

Obviously, car culture is changing, buyers accepted the convenience and comfort modern automatics provide, and they are willing to pay a premium for it. However, I am not sure that the car makers are that sad, and it seems that Drury from Edmunds shares that sentiment with me. He said:

“For automakers, it will be simpler when the manual dies. It’s kind of a hassle for them to offer both, same with dealers. Given the market forces, it’s going to go away.”

Why Is The Manual Transmission Living On Borrowed Time?
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Obviously, car culture is changing, buyers accepted the convenience and comfort modern automatics provide, and they are willing to pay a premium for it

Obviously, the manual transmission in the U.S. has already become something like a niche thing. Almost no one chooses it. Save for enthusiasts and all those people who want to save a grand or two by leaving the automatic box on the options list unchecked. Europe, a Mecca for drivers’ cars with manual transmissions has it a bit better.

But even there, automatic transmissions are creeping up the charts slowly showing obvious trends of growth. Heck, car enthusiasts became so worried about the manual transmission that they’ve started an Internet hashtag trend - #Savethemanuals. Contribute if you find it prudent.

However, in the less fortunate markets, where every dollar, lakh or dinar count, the manual transmission does not show signs of weakness. Nevertheless, these are the reasons that, directly or indirectly, boosted automatic transmission sales over manual ones.

Safety

Why Is The Manual Transmission Living On Borrowed Time?
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The study revealed that drivers experience dramatically higher stress levels in a car with manual transmission compared with an automatic car

It seems that Internet forums, journalists, and car gurus are in a never-ending debate about the topic of which car is safer - one with manual transmission, or one with an automatic. While both camps offer interesting arguments, I tend to believe that new, modern cars, with monitoring systems, active assistance, and automatic transmissions are safer compared with equivalent cars with a manual transmission.

Some institutions, and probably all car manufacturers made extensive studies on drivers’ behavior behind the wheel. Thanks to advanced monitoring systems in cars today, they can actually do it. The study revealed that drivers experience dramatically higher stress levels in a car with manual transmission compared with an automatic car. Heck, it was concluded that the stress level for a driver driving a car with an automatic is much the same as those of the passengers. Astounding to say the least.

More importantly, the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health actually conducted a research testing the reaction time and the driving behavior of drivers in a manual and an automatic car. They tried to assess if driving an automatic car would be safer for older drivers. They separated drivers into two groups (older and younger group) and monitored their driving on a course. First with a manual car, then with an automatic.

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Modern cars do offer numerous assistant systems which keep drivers alert at all times.

These are the results:

“The older group had more driving errors than the younger group, in both the manual and the automatic transmission car. However, and contrary to the younger drivers, automatic transmissions improved the older participants’ driving behavior as demonstrated by safer speed adjustment in urban areas, greater maneuvering skills, safer lane position, and driving in accordance with the speed regulations.”

Quite an extraordinary test, isn’t it? Now, while some may argue that less stress behind the wheel makes drivers more susceptible to focus on other things aside from driving, modern cars do offer numerous assistant systems which keep drivers alert at all times.

Power transfer

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Modern automatic transmissions, such as those with 8, 9, or even ten gears proved to be exceptionally smooth while offering manual-like fuel efficiency

Back in 2016, BMW Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Peter Quintus, said that high-quality, good manual transmission systems can handle up to 450 horsepower and 440 feet-pound of torque. Add anything more, and the transmission has to be re-engineered - usually making it too heavy, jerky, or simply not enjoyable in the process.

“We looked at US gearboxes. We found they were heavy and the shift quality was awful,” he said, and added, “I’m not even sure the next generation of M3 and M4 models from BMW will have the option of a manual gearbox.”

Now apart from the uses on the high-end, powerful cars, car manufacturers do have to comply with the EPA regulations for fuel efficiency and harmful gases emissions. Thanks to advanced automatic transmission systems they can precisely tune the car to save as much fuel as possible. Modern automatic transmissions, such as those with 8, 9, or even ten gears proved to be exceptionally smooth while offering manual-like fuel efficiency (in certain conditions even better.)

Installing much the same transmission in almost all their cars will considerably lower average fuel consumption and emissions which is one of the main tasks every car manufacturer has to achieve.

Comfort

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An automatic transmission offers numerous comfort and convenience benefits.

Back in the Fifties, GM’s Hydra-Matic automatic transmission showed the way for the U.S. car industry. It was simply a more comfortable and more convenient solution than anything else on the market. The whole automotive industry caught on, forever changing the landscape of the U.S. car industry. An automatic transmission offers numerous comfort and convenience benefits. First, one does not have to operate the clutch - less stress. Secondly, creeping in congested traffic (a nightmare for most drivers) is far easier with an automatic. Thirdly, modern versions of automatic transmission systems (Double-clutch transmission, 9-speed and 10-speed units, and CVT systems) offer quicker gear changes, and, if set up correctly, provide a boost in performance too.

Obviously, with all the monitoring and active safety systems on board, and an automatic transmission, drivers can focus more on the stuff that car manufacturers want them to use. I am referring to infotainment systems and subscription programs that offer added convenience and value. Don’t you think this is a thing?

Well, Jacob Brown, a product communications specialist with Mazda does. He said: “For manual models to exist, there has to be a way for those models to seamlessly be able to accommodate technology without distraction.” By “technology” he meant infotainment systems and other.

Cutting costs

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Furthermore, the U.S. car market showed that depreciation is higher with cars equipped with manual transmissions

Developing a car to accept two types of transmission is definitely more costly than developing a car accepting only one transmission options. This is definitely one of the few benefits car manufacturers experience with the car world opting only for the automatic transmission. Furthermore, with such a low number of drivers actually buying manuals, the price of automatic has also fallen.

“Manual transmissions make up a fairly small number, and that number tends to decrease rapidly as you move up the model line-up for any car,” says Michael McHale, Subaru’s Director of Communications. He added that “the relative price of an automatic as a percentage of the purchase price has been falling for years.” Obviously, no one will produce anything that people won’t actually buy. And, they buy automatics. It is that simple. Furthermore, the U.S. car market showed that depreciation is higher with cars equipped with manual transmissions. Some of them have been sitting for ages on dealer lots. That is a problem, both for dealers and for the manufacturers. The solution? Get rid of all manually equipped cars. Considering only 2 percent of all buyers are actually choosing them… Mission accomplished!

Enthusiast Aren’t €nthu$iastic Enough

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A lot of the people actually rambling on about the “save the manuals” thing aren’t exactly in a position to buy a new car in the first place

So, while Car and Driver did start that hashtag trend #Savethemanuals, the reality is that car enthusiasts simply aren’t paying for cars with manual transmissions. This led me to do a bit of a research, and I found that a lot of the people actually rambling on about the “save the manuals” thing aren’t exactly in a position to buy a new car in the first place. And, as we all know, money makes the world go round.

“We have seen that buyers aren’t asking for them,” said Mark Gillies, spokesman for Volkswagen. “We had a manual option in the old Tiguan, but almost no one took it.”

Ferrari’s product marketing chief Nicola Boari implied that the company ended all manual transmission production because of the "close to zero" demand. Logical enough.

"It’s a disgrace," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "Yes, it’s more troublesome and expensive for the automakers. But it’s completely inexcusable that Ferrari doesn’t even offer a manual."

Obviously, this guy is into cars and loves to have that proper feeling only a manual can give, but the matter of a fact is that Ferrari’s least powerful car today has 600 horsepower. It would really be a curiosity to have a manual 600 horsepower Ferrari Portofino. I can’t imagine it. At all.

Conclusion

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Considering that manual transmission today is associated with something cheap, buyers are even less decisive when buying it.

While stick shift is fun (Porsche drivers can attest for sure,) the fact of the matter is that modern automatic transmissions are simply better. They are quicker, more responsive, and offer better performance and comfort — something no manual transmission can. This leaves the manual transmission for true gearheads and for those who want to save a couple of dollars when buying a new car.

"Beyond the fun and engaging aspect of a manual transmission, it often lets us provide a more affordable and advanced powertrain combination," said Paul Seredynski, Ford’s global performance and powertrain communications manager.

Considering that manual transmission today is associated with something cheap, buyers are even less decisive when buying it.

I think that due to all of the reasons stated above, the manual transmission is on its way out. Ok, some producers will always offer it to satisfy the few, but it is obvious that the manual transmission is already on its last leg in the U.S. With the introduction of electric cars and hybrids, which will, I presume, take over the market in the future altogether, the manual transmission will die out in Europe as well. The only places where it will remain the backbone are third world countries and emerging markets where manufacturers aim to offer cars that are as affordable as possible.

What do you think?
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