Manual Fool

When it comes to DIY and driving, long live the holdouts.

Strange that as everyone’s focused on robots driving them around as the new savior of the roadways and the kind of driving they’re most fascinated by, what I’ve always enjoyed and still love most is the least automated of all: driving a stick.

Increasing automation is the reality in the U.S. automotive world and is rapidly becoming the case in trucking. In the latter case, a lot has been changing drastically in only the last several years. A manual, a.k.a. “standard,” transmission has become an anti-theft device—few could steal my car even if they tried.

When I have this discussion, people often ask what I drive, thinking it must be something wildly exotic. It doesn’t have to be a supercar by any means, nor do I need to rev the engine out to its redline every time—not at all. I keep the engine where it should be for the situation, as needed.

It helps if the vehicle has some pull to it, sure, but a well-executed manual can make almost any car more engaging and fun with a skilled driver. It’smore ergonomically correct, too, employing both one’s legs in purposeful driving tasks rather than building up and tiring out right leg muscles while nursing a flaccid, woodenly useless left stump.

Shifting a manual is like touch-typing; do it enough, and you’ll do it without thinking. You’re truly a mechanical part of the vehicle’s drivetrain unlike any automatic transmission or even electronic, software-actuating paddle shifter can make you. And as the shift becomes instinct, you know your driving intentions and respond to the road ahead and your own senses in a way that no machine can.

I heard something very telling from a colleague recently. We had this same conversation and he said, “I hear you. Sure—I guess if I had a car just for fun, I might want a manual, but I’m doing way too much in my car these days to bother with that otherwise.”

Umm… anyone just hear what I did? What exactly are you doing in that car? There’s a huge problem today with distracted driving; it’s because we enabled it. Operating most late-model cars is extremely simple and highly automated, leaving the (bored, detached) “driver” to do just about everything but.

Show me a driver working a manual transmission, and I’ll show you an undistracted driver.

Americans can scarcely be bothered today to do anything manual in a vehicle, like flip on a turn signal. Many meander or throttle about on the roads, coming to a stop like lumps and expecting drivers behind them—and at-risk pedestrians who may be trying to cross a street—to use clairvoyance to discern what on earth they intend to do.

But this is pronouncedly more the case in the United States, which is what riddles me most about it. Manual transmissions are much more common elsewhere. There are vehicles you can’t buy in a stick here that don’t even offer an automatic in South America, and similar anomalies in Europe vs. America and other markets. Are we that different?

Yes, many of our roads have broken down into parking lots. I get the inconvenience, having to clutch in and out repeatedly as you bumper-to-bumper along. I spent a dozen years living in the Washington, D.C., area, battling through I-395, 495, 295, 695, etc., and highly trafficked local roads as I got around. Most of that time, I was shifting along in a little sedan that, get this, even had manual steering!

And it’s no easier for me now in overly dense New England. Yet in an age of quantum computing, electronics, and digitalization everywhere, still I remain a manual-loving fool—and in more ways than one. While I’m not sure that would be the case for me if it was a double-clutching heavy truck with 10-plus speeds, I know many of the best, most experienced truck drivers out there are, too.

That’s the interesting side note. Another colleague was telling me about such a truck driver who drove a stick and suffered problems with arthritis, but continued to work that gear shift and clutch even so. In fact, this driver still insisted on having a manual. “If it keeps them happy,” this colleague said—and even if you don’t get it—”why not let them have it?”


This article was originally posted by American Trucker.