What The Automatic Transmission Has Done To Us

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

It’s easy to get suckered by the convenient, the easy. We’re all susceptible. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance. Present almost anyone with a quart of their favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s — and a sit-up machine — and it’s not a hard bet to make as far as which one most people will choose.

This is the nature of the subtle evil that is the automatic transmission.

It has taken most of the effort out of driving. In particular, of learning how to drive. Accordingly, most people never do.

It has ruined the art of driving.

And it is an art.

Or, was.

Well, a skill at least.

Before the automatic came along (it happened in the ’40s, brought to us by GM through its Oldsmobile division) driving a car required more talent than being able to open and close a door, sit down — and push on two pedals.

There was of course a third pedal — the clutch pedal. When it was out, the engine was directly connected to the transmission, which was directly transmitting the engine’s power to the driven wheels via the driveshaft. If the driver did not push the clutch pedal in as the car rolled to a stop, the car would buck and finally, stall out — because the engine could not turn the pavement (or the Earth to which it was attached).

To resume forward motion, the driver had to gradually let out the clutch while simultaneously easing into the gas pedal — allowing just enough slippage to avoid (once again) stalling out the car. It took a bit of practice to master this delicate balance, to be able to do it smoothly. It was a right of passage, something almost every aspiring teenage driver had to learn. It was a little intimidating — as it ought to be.

Driving is serious business. It’s not for everyone.

Some never did master it — and they were culled from the ranks. Washed out.

As it should be.

Same goes for shifting gears — the next level of mastery.

Before the advent of synchronizers in the transmission, one had to time one’s shifts just so — matching engine speed to road speed. It was necessary to choreograph this delicate ballet yourself. If you failed to do so, the result was an awful grinding of the gears. General embarrassment would ensue — along with (eventually) repair bills.

So, the newbie driver had to learn how to do several things all at once: First, to engage and disengage the clutch — smoothly. Those who rode the clutch (kept it partially engaged, allowing excess slippage) burned up the clutch. Those who engaged it too soon or too abruptly made the car buck like a bronco — annoying passengers and (eventually) breaking something else.

The driver also had to know when (and how) to shift the transmission into the appropriate gear for any given condition. He had to know when to up shift — and when to downshift — in order to avoid either over-speeding the engine or lugging the engine — either of which could result in a hurt engine.

It was about being in tune with the mechanical goings-on. The driver had to pay attention. How else to know what gear you happened to be in? When it was time to shift? Which gear to shift into?

No one else was going to do it for you. And if you didn’t do it, there would be consequences. Immediate, real — tangible. The car would bog. Or stall out, roll back — and into the car behind you.

In a manual-equipped car, it’s harder to be vacuous. A himbo — or a bimbo. You’re compelled to participate. To observe the progression of traffic signals, to anticipate what’s likely to happen next. The change from red to green, the ebb and flow of traffic. The wheels (in your head) turn. It’s necessary to focus on your environment, what’s going on around you. To be ready — and to know what to do. If, for instance, you need to slow down quickly — it will be necessary to do more than stomp on just the brake pedal.

Not that you couldn’t also have a conversation with your passenger at the same time. Certainly. But it was secondary to the task at hand. In the Age of the Clutch, it was less common for people to space out at red lights or in traffic, as is common today. Some perhaps did so — but they got schooled right quick.

This made for better — because more necessarily more attentive and inherently more involved — drivers.

Automatics do the opposite.

They are like high fructose corn syrup, fluoride and other soporifics. They induce — and encourage — inattentiveness and passivity. Staring off into space. Wondering about what’s for dinner. Playing with the GPS. Gabbling on the cell phone.

After all, what else is there to do?

The automatic-equipped modern car pretty much drives itself. Very little is expected of the Dunsel behind the wheel — and not surprisingly — not much is given. As automatic-equipped cars became dominant and manual cars a relative rarity — and people could “learn to drive” — and get a driver’s license — without ever so much as touching a clutch — real skill behind the wheel ebbed, for the simple reason that it was no longer required or even expected.

The bar had been lowered.

Today, literally almost anyone can “drive” an automatic-equipped car — in the sense that almost anyone can turn an ignition key (lately, push a button) and then push down on the accelerator pedal. Turn the wheel left, turn it right. Push down on the brake pedal. He can make it go! (Cue the Pakleds from Star Trek, Next Generation.)

But driving isn’t — or ought not to be — democratic, much less Pakled.

There are people who shouldn’t be driving. Top of the list, arguably, are those who aren’t able to master the art of the clutch. You probably know several. Certainly, we see them on the road almost every day. Before the widespread availability of the automatic, they were kept off the road. Not by legislation. Not by force. But by the same factors that keep me out of the operating suite. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t embarrass yourself.

Or hurt someone else.

Now, automatics are not per se evil. In the same way that Ben & Jerry’s is not evil. But if Ben & Jerry’s is all you eat, there might be a problem. Just as it’s a problem if all you’ve ever driven — and all you know how to drive — is an automatic.

If you want to become a better driver, learn to drive a manual.

Those who have, already are.

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9 Responses to “What The Automatic Transmission Has Done To Us”

  1. Spike Roberson says:

    I have long held that every road-going vehicle; every damn one; should ONLY be available with a manual transmission for all the reasons cited here. Yes — I know that it will never happen and that we are doomed to ever-more distracted and incompetent drivers — but I can DREAM!

    • Tony says:

      The ignorance here amazes me. Incompetence doesn't stem from what kind of car you drive it comes from you being imcomptent. If you really think solely based on the car you drive you can determine a "good" drive I thoroughly hope you aren't making any important decisions in life.

  2. Jeff T says:

    Good column, Eric. I will be teaching my 15-YO daughter to drive a stick. If she chooses not to own one, that's fine, but she will know how to drive properly. For many of the reasons you cite, I purposely bought a six-speed Mustang GT. Of course, a side bonus is my wife doesn't drive manual cars…!

  3. Doug says:

    Agree per the premise.
    Got tired of the '58 Merc with the push-button auto when I got my license …. no wonder the engine had to be rebuilt (actually that was per a job action at the factory w/ parts incorrectly installed).
    But I learned to drive a stick in my '59 Volvo…how to 'feather' the clutch to start and get past cars stuck in the snow, etc.. Have never wanted an automatic…the current search for a new car is limited by that requirement.
    Being 70, I figure that it will be easier to tell when I should stop driving if I drive a stick….though that didn't stop my f-in-l. Though I have given in to AWD…I still want to have to use the right arm and shift.

  4. seenmuch says:

    I have spent decades of teaching drone like automatic only drivers to actually learn how to drive. I have coined a name for these most worthless of drivers, "Peddle pushers". These are drivers have almost no skill when it comes to controlling a car with the engine & transmission. They are the least efficient of drivers consistently seeing the lowest possible mpgs in a driving conditions……….

    They are neither aware or concerned with traffic conditions when it comes to using the engine & transmission in relation to throttle input or speed. And in my experience they have no idea of how disconnected they really are from driving!!

    Without exception every person I have ever taught to row their own gears are safer and more efficient when it comes to driving to conditions and control of speed in relation to terrain!! And they are all also amazed how they didn't die before from their cluelessness to driving…..

  5. Bruce Liddel says:

    I am driving my first automatic in 36 years, and first CVAT ever. I hate it. I bought it because the EPA said it would get 2mpg better than a manual. I think they lied. No longer can I slam the car into fifth at 25 mph (using paddle shifters), and have it stay in fifth. Now, I have to keep it in lower gears until 50mph. I can no longer floor the accelerator in any gear, without tripping the passing–gear response, RPMs soaring past 4000, buggering up my mileage. EPA said 36 highway – I'm doing well to get 30mpg, and that's with tires inflated to 40psi. EPA said 29 mpg city, and it's actually more like 22 mpg in the city.

    CVAT is a nice idea, but I need much more control over its performance/economy philosophy.

    I can't go back and buy a manual transmission version of the same car – they discontinued the manual option for 2014. 🙁

  6. Dyor says:

    Well, there are whole countries where you still can't get your driver's license unless you pass quite strict examination, in which manual transmission is essential. In Russia there is now a separation of automatic and manual, and still most people go for manual, because cheapest vehicles are manual only (Russian car makers still didn't master own AT production, they use Japanese, German and American ATs, which are expensive options for most locally produced cars). I guess the same is in China and India, but I don't know the details. So, in Russia you have to pass theoretical test (computer-based, 20 questions, up to 2 mistakes, better none), then maneuvers (parallel backwards parking, bridge (stop and go on uphill), snake (you have to drive in perfect sine to miss cones), backwards V-turn and it's variation, backwards drive into garage. Pictures here: http://avto-russia.ru/pdd/driving/ illustrate that quite clearly even if you can't read Russian. Once you passed theory and maneuvers, you're cleared for real-life test on actual city streets, where you have to obey EVERYTHING literally: speed limits, traffic lights, road markings, etc. I know maybe one or two persons out of several thousands who passed everything on the first attempt.
    Sadly, that doesn't make Russian drivers any better: recently it became much harder to bribe examiners (who are traffic police officers), but upon getting the permit freshly-baked drivers break loose. DUI is quite an issue still, and the bigger the car, the cheekier the driver is (not everyone, but many).

  7. Tony says:

    With no disrespect this is one of the dumbest things i have ever read based on what you're saying, if you can't hunt or gather your own food don't eat master the task. In our growing world convenience is realistic. There's a reason as to why people advance. Second if you shop at a grocery store you are now a hypocrit. Do you use a lawn mower with an engine? What happened to hard work? Do you order pizza what happened to feeding your children a home cooked meal. Why you only discuss one convenience that has change over the years there are countless others that you don't take a second look at. If you love driving love it but don't sit here and tell me the bar has been lowered because you need to take a long hard look at your life and how much lower you also are.

  8. Tina says:

    Amen! My daughter sent me your essay. I required her to learn to learn to drive a manual transmission car first. She and I drive manuals and love them. I believe all women, and actually everyone, should at the very least know how to drive one for safety reasons. You can manage to drive just about anything in a crisis if you have the basic manual experience. My belief was borne out when she went to college, a group became stranded , and she was the only one who knew how to drive the manual car that belonged to one of the guys. (His parents gave it to him without training him how to drive it!)
    Driving my manual car brings me joy and keeps me safer on the road. It is an art and it's so heartwarming to find a kindred spirit of the gearshift.
    Thank you for your words!