I drive a stick shift. It’s a pain, sometimes. Clutching and shifting in bumper-to-bumper traffic wears you out. My wife can’t drive my car, which limits our transit options. And when I’m at the wheel, I can’t hold a cold, delicious slushie in one hand, at least not safely. But despite the inconvenience, I love a manual transmission. I love the feeling that I am operating my car, not just driving it. That’s why I’ve driven stick shifts for the past 20 years.
That streak may soon be over. When it comes time to replace my current car, I probably won’t be able to get another like it. In 2000, more than 15 percent of new and used cars sold by the auto retailer CarMax came with stick shifts; by 2020, that figure had dropped to 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 now account for more than 5 percent of car sales, don’t even have gearboxes. There are rumors that Mercedes-Benz plans to retire manuals entirely by the end of next year, all around the world, in a decision driven partly by electrification; Volkswagen is said to be dropping its own by 2030, and other brands are sure to follow. Stick shifts have long been a niche market in the U.S. Soon they’ll be extinct.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. For years, the stick’s decline has been publicly lamented. Car and Driver ran a “Save the Manuals” campaign in 2010, insisting that drivers who “learned to operate the entire car” would enjoy driving more and do it better. A #SaveTheManual hashtag followed. Shifting gears yourself isn’t just a source of pleasure, its advocates have said, or a way to hone your driving. 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 used to be), and it once had lower operation and maintenance costs. You can push-start a manual if the battery dies, so you’re less likely to get stuck somewhere; and you can use the stick more easily for engine braking, which can reduce wear and make descending hills easier and safer.
But the manual transmission’s chief appeal derives from the feeling it imparts to the driver: a sense, whether real or imagined, that he or she is in control. According to the business consultant turned motorcycle repairman turned best-selling author Matthew Crawford, attending to that sense is not just an affectation. Humans develop tools that assist in locomotion, such as domesticated horses and carriages and bicycles and cars—and then extend their awareness to those tools. The driver “becomes one” with the machine, as we say. In his 2020 book, Why We Drive, Crawford argues that a device becomes a prosthetic. The rider fuses with the horse. To move the tool is to move the self.
Crawford argues that this cognitive enhancement is possible only when you can interpret the components of the tool you’re operating. As a rider must sense the horse’s gait, so must a driver grok the engine’s torque. But modern automotive technology tends to inhibit that sensation. Power steering, electronic fuel injection, anti-lock braking systems, and, yes, automatic transmissions obstruct the “natural bonds between action and perception,” Crawford writes. They inhibit the operator’s ability to interpret the car’s state and capacities through a healthy feedback loop of action and information. To illustrate the point, he tells a story about test-driving a 400-horsepower Audi RS3 with all the options, including a paddle-shifting automatic transmission. It was powerful and capable, he says, but “I could not connect with the car.” That description is a common one among gearheads, a way of expressing that the human operator and the machine are out of sync.
The stick shift has become a proxy object for that loss. When manual transmissions were the norm, drivers had to touch and manipulate the shifter, in tandem with the clutch, constantly while operating a vehicle. Passengers saw this action taking place, and shifting gears became imbued with meaning. It represented the allure of the road, for all its good and ill, and stood in for the human control of a big, hot, dangerous machine screaming down the pavement. The manual transmission’s impending disappearance feels foreboding not (just) because shifting a car is fun and sensual, but also because the gearshift is—or was—a powerful cultural symbol of the human body working in unison with the engineered world.
Crawford admits that he might connect with the Audi if he put in enough hours at the wheel. But even knowing this, “the car left me cold,” he writes. In part, that’s because the coarse feedback that one gets while driving an all-electronic vehicle might be—or feel—too subtle for a brute human mind. Cars have, in a way, become too good. Human understanding slips off their surface, like ice off a hot hood.
The decoupling of humans from their driving machines will accelerate in years to come. If the automatic transmission made the stick shift a monument to lost control, the autonomous (self-driving) vehicle aims to do the same for steering wheels. At that point, the loss will be so complete that it may not feel so alienating. Any pretense that the automobile is a prosthetic will be eliminated, so car passengers can move on to other things. Like people on a train, they might settle into a book or take a nap or open up an Excel spreadsheet.
But fully autonomous cars might never be in widespread use, and even mostly autonomous cars could be a long way off. In the meantime, the automotive industry will take away drivers’ control in slow, lumbering steps, just as other industries have for other appliances, apparatuses, and services. You can now flush a toilet or operate a sink not with the force of your hands, but by means of sensors. Web and product searches yield the results some third party wants you to see, rather than the best matches to your requests. Maps, now digital, show points of interest in place of raw information; travelers let the apps that host those 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 templates, and the streaming platforms on your television calculate which shows you should watch next.
People rued the decline of the stick shift for years before the “Save the Manuals” campaign (and hashtag, and merch) spun up. But it may be no accident that the formal crusade arose just as computation overtook culture, steering human lives in the direction of technology companies’ and data aggregators’ needs. Around that time, all the apps and services just mentioned (and many more) became widespread.
The manual transmission, however marginal it has become during the smartphone age, remains a vestige of direct, mechanical control. When a driver changes speeds, their intention can be fruitfully realized in gratifying action, meshing literal gears. Even when your hand slips and the gears grind, the device still speaks in a way you can understand.
To lament the end of the manual transmission is to eulogize much more than shifting gears. When the manual dies, little about driving will fall away that hasn’t already been lost. But we’ll lose something bigger and more important: the comfort of knowing that there is one essential, everyday device still out there that you can actually feel operating. Even if you don’t own a stick, or if you don’t know how to drive one, its mere existence signals that a more embodied technology is possible—that it once was common, even—and that humans and machines really can commune. The stick shift is a form of hope, but it’s one we’ll soon have left behind.
Go to Publisher: Technology | The Atlantic
Author: Ian Bogost