The world doesn’t need manual cars anymore

Arif · Jul 24, 2020 04:56 PM

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Stalling engines, nerve-wracking hill starts, and jerky gear shifts are some of the memories you might have of obtaining your driver’s license. If you had taken your driver’s license prior to 2014, you had to do it with a manual transmission car. It most likely didn’t have power steering too. You didn’t have a choice.

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Current driving school cars have power steering

Today, a Malaysian driver’s license can be obtained either with a manual or an automatic car. While driving enthusiasts stand by the mantra that driving a manual makes you a better driver, car makers are making the sensible business decision of ditching the clutch pedal. I empathise with both sides of the fence. I like smart business decisions, but I have also committed the financial sin of buying two manual cars just for the fun of it.

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We don’t need manual transmissions anymore. I’ll just say it (automated manuals don’t count). Technology is moving forward and ever-evolving. We have come very far from the days of roofless horseless carriages, worm and sector steering, mechanical distributors, and carburettors. It may also be time for the standard manual to be honourably archived.

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While some may argue that the standard manual is here to stay, there are a few good reasons the world doesn't really need it anymore. Let’s go through a few of them…

1. Entry level cars have become automatic

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Manual cars are cheaper. There’s no denying that. Even when you travel abroad, manual cars are cheaper to rent then automatics. The lower price is not due to the cheaper manufacturing cost, but due to the low demand.

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If you don't want an automatic gearbox in an Axia, you also don't get a radio and ABS.

Although cheaper, choices of a brand-new manual car are getting less and less by the day. A “complete” entry-level car in Malaysia would be the G-spec Axia. It is only sold as an automatic. You could get the E-spec, but it has more things omitted besides the auto gearbox. If a car were to be solely made with an auto transmission, it effectively becomes cheaper to produce than a manual.

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1.0 Turbo 6-Speed manual Honda Civic. Would you buy one?

Manual transmissions are usually available in small displacement variants, like the 1.3 L Proton Iriz and the 1.0 Turbo Honda Civic (UK and China). Common cars like the Proton X70, Honda City, Toyota Vios, and Nissan Almera are now only sold with automatic transmissions. You wouldn’t get the practicality that these cars offer if you were to exclusively shop for a manual brand-new car. 

2. High performance is now automatic

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Ferrari cars don’t use the standard manual transmission anymore. Neither does the crown prince of JDM cars, the Nissan GTR R35.

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The use of dual-clutch automatics has also trickled down to smaller performance cars like the VW Golf GTI, the Renault Megane RS, and the BMW M2.

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Although Porsche did have to provide manual 911s for some Porsche purists (997 911 GT3 RS), the bulk of Porsche performance cars use Porsche’s dual clutch automatic transmission, the PDK. The subsequent GT3 RS based on the 991 uses the dual-clutch automatic since outright speed was its main objective.
Standard manuals may be engaging to drive, but if pure performance is what you want, a dual-clutch automatic does a better job.

3. Heavy duty applications are now automatic (or automated)

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If you thought driving big commercial vehicles meant using a fast-and-furious spec gear shifter, you’re wrong. Modern day big trucks do have more complicated gearboxes, but they are automated split gear transmissions. Big trucks can also use planetary gear automatics (Allison 4500 R), but the number of gear ratios that can be achieved are much less.

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Even smaller commercial vehicles like vans and small trucks are available in automatic transmissions. While previously we may have thought automatics were not suitable for commercial applications, they seem to be doing just fine.

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The manual gearbox itself offers the benefit of a compact design compared to the planetary gear automatic. You can get more gear ratios out of a manual gearbox than a planetary gear automatic gearbox of the same size. There’s no denying that. That’s why truck manufacturers still use the design of the manual gearbox. They’re just automated to deliver more consistent gear shifts and save on fuel.

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Inside a Mercedes Actros. No fast-and-furious gear shifter here.

4. The final goal is autonomous driving

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Autonomous driving is applicable in both electric and ICE cars. To achieve autonomous driving, car controls have to be electronic. That’s why parking brakes are now electronic. That’s why gear shifters have become electronic. That’s why throttle pedals have become electronic. You get the gist. 

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The steps toward an autonomous future

A manual shifter is purely mechanical. It is not electronic. That’s why it needs to be phased out. Even the standard automatic gear shifter and indicator stalk will need to be replaced with electronic versions. If autonomous driving is to be realised, the car will have to be fully electronically controlled.

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Side view cameras in an Audi e-tron

Driving inputs like visual and aural data also have to be digitized. That’s why cameras and radars are becoming more and more common on everyday cars. Phasing out the standard manual is just a piece of the puzzle. The future of driving is autonomous and electric.

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In summary, the standard manual transmission no longer offers the advantages that it used to when automatic transmissions were under-developed. Yes, rowing through gears is fun, but it isn't very practical. It is something some of us might desire, but don’t actually need. If “saving the manuals” is your life's mission, go ahead and buy one for yourself.

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