Moore’s Law as Applied to Cars

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Moore’s law applies to cars, too.

Ok, the pace of change is not quite as rapid – but it has upticked tremendously over the past 20 years. Even more so over the past five years. For example, most 2012 transmissions (manual or automatic) have at least six speeds now – and seven and eight-speed transmissions are becoming common – even in mid-priced, family type cars (the 2012 Chrysler 300, for example).  They were almost unheard of just five or so years ago – even in the most exotic and high-priced cars. Within five years, they will be as common as six speed transmissions are now.

What else has changed? Here are a few important ones to know:

* Tire inflation pressures are often much higher now than they used to be –

If you haven’t looked at a sidewall (or new car owner’s manual) recently, you might be surprised to find out that it’s common for new cars to have tires that want 40 pounds of air (or even more) as opposed to the formerly typical 28-32 PSI or thereabouts.  The reasons for this include low-aspect-ratio (short sidewall) tires, the trend toward ever-“sportier” handling (even as regards family-type cars) and also the automakers’ quest to find ways to decrease rolling resistance and so increase fuel efficiency. This week, I am test-driving a 2012 Hyundai Accent – an entry-level economy-compact. It has 16-inch, low-aspect-ratio ratio tires that want 44 psi. Such high inflation pressures were uncommon (at least, in common cars) 10 or 15 years ago; almost unheard of 25 or so years ago. The bottom line is, check your owner’s manual. You might be surprised how much more air your new car’s tires need.

* An automatic-equipped car may be your best bet for  a higher-mileage car –

In the not-so-distant past, if you wanted best-case mileage from a given car, you wanted the manual-equipped version of that car. The direct physical link between the engine and the drive wheels (this is why manual-equipped cars will stall if you don’t push in the clutch as the car rolls to a stop with the transmission in gear) was more efficient. Automatics – which transmit power to the drive wheels hydraulically, via the pressure of fluid – experienced a degree of slippage, even when in top gear, at steady-state cruise, that resulted in a measurable loss of efficiency – which resulted in a noticeable drop in fuel economy relative to an otherwise identical car with a manual transmission. But all modern automatics have a “lock-up” feature that physically connects the engine/transmission to the drive wheels once you’re cruising along (reducing the slippage losses characteristic of older automatics) as well as more gears (and tighter gear spacing) which makes them extremely efficient. They also have almost-conscious computerized intelligences controlling them that tell them to shift at just the right moment, every time – which not all human drivers can do most of the time and few can do all the time. This is why you’ll discover that the EPA fuel economy ratings often list the automatic-equipped version of the car you’re looking at as much as 2-3 MPGs higher than the same car equipped with a manual transmission. It’s getting rare to find a new car with an automatic that gets noticeably less gas mileage than the same car with  manual – the opposite of what used to be the case not so long ago.

* Clutch adjustments are often not necessary (and clutches last forever, or almost) – 

If you’ve driven a late-model car with a manual transmission, you may have noticed how easy it was to drive. Part of the reason for this is the adoption, industry-wide, of hydraulically assisted clutches. Even very powerful, ultra-performance cars with manuals are pretty easy to drive now as a result of this (unlike in the muscle car days, when working the clutch was like working the leg-press machine at the gym). But the other, less well-known benefit of hydraulic-assist clutches is that they auto-adjust, which increases the longevity of the clutch itself. Back in the Day, it was routine service to periodically adjust, by hand, clutch take-up. That job now sits with typewriters and cassette tapes in history’s dumpster. And it’s why clutches now routinely last as long as the car – or almost that long. It is not common to go 150,000 miles or more on the factory-installed clutch. That would have been a near-miracle in the ’70s. Most people can expect to get at least 100,000 miles out of a clutch (assuming they know how to drive a manual transmission and don’t abuse it). Back in the ’70s, 100k was a pretty good lifespan for a transmission.

* Gas-burning cars are approaching the fuel-efficiency (and longevity) of diesel-powered cars –

Diesels used to routinely give 50-plus MPGs – which was vastly better than any gas-burning car could manage – but don’t anymore because of recent government regulations that have resulted in reduced the fuel-efficiency of diesel engines. They still have the edge when it comes to max mileage – but not by such a large margin anymore. For instance, I recently reviewed the 2012 Mazda3, equipped with the new “SkyActiv” gas engine. Mazda got 40 MPH (highway) out of it – which is only about 5 MPG behind the reported highway mileage of the soon-to-be-here “Sky-D” diesel engine that Mazda will offer in the 2013 Mazda3.  Now, the Sky-D looks to be an impressive engine, combining excellent economy with excellent performance – but a 5 MPG improvement on the highway (and maybe 8 or so MPG in city driving) may not be sufficient to negate the higher per-gallon cost of diesel fuel – as well as the probably higher cost of the diesel engine itself. Another example, higher up the food chain: The BMW 330d (diesel) is rated 23 city, 36 highway. Its MSRP is $44,150. The comparably equipped (gas burning) 335i rates 19 city, 28 highway and costs $42,050.  Unless you drive a lot, there’s probably not much savings to be had here – by buying the diesel. Of course, diesel engines can usually be counted on to last for a very long time – potentially several hundred thousand miles. On the other hand, it is no longer uncommon to find gas-engined cars with 200,000-plus miles on them that still run great. 

* Oil is more car (and engine) specific –

It used to be safe to use pretty much any oil you found on the shelf in any engine in any car. Maybe not ideal – but it probably wouldn’t hurt anything. That’s not always true now. Some new car engines demand very specific oil – and other fluids, such as coolant – and if you don’t use them, you run the risk of problems with the engine (or the cooling system) … or the warranty. That goes for the transmission, too. You may not trigger a mechanical problem simply by using other-than-recommended fluids (and filters) but if a problem does crop up, you may end up with a warranty problem. Us of non-recommended lubes/fluids/filters may give the automaker an “out” in the event a failure  crops up that can be attributed to use of other-than-recommended stuff.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. Manual vs automatic. I second what BrentP says. As a driver, I want to be in control. As a libertarian, I will shift when I want to, not when some federal mandate determines. If I want to go 60 MPH in first gear, that’s up to me.

    I live in Denver and drive in the mountains. Going downhill, I don’t want to have to rely only on brakes to slow me down, I want two methods. Brakes get hot with constant use. It is scary to think of descending Independence Pass with an automatic, especially since there are no guard rails (so snow plows can just push the snow over the edge, rather than lift and dump).

  2. The problem with computer controlled transmissions (be they traditional automatics or essentially “manual” transmissions where the computer does the clutching and the mechanical shifting) is that the computer decides when you can do what. That’s the problem. Who gets to program this thing? You? No. The manufacturer’s lawyers and eventually the government will dictate the programming. Sure you can put your own program in but you can kiss a good hunk of your powertrain warranty goodbye.

    Even if the machines can do better than me and I do not doubt they can, I still have control of my car.

    Then there are all the reasons where being able to decouple the engine with a push of the left foot is useful.

    • BMW, Ferrari and others are really enamored of “sequential manual” automated gearboxes, which admittedly do deliver the consistently quickest performance relative to what even a really good human driver can do. But, so what? Unless you’re actually on a race track – and racing for money – who cares?

      Isn’t the point of the exercise, ultimately, to have fun?

      I’ll take a manual controlled by me – missed shifts/early shifts/late shifts and all – any day of the week!

  3. Even though I enjoy a manual, it is so retro for a performance car to require disengaging the engine just so change gears. That should have changed decades ago.

    With the 8 (and even 9) speed automatics, with shift points based on what is ACTUALLY going on in the engine rather than the driver’s perception (while he is actively paying attention to the road (hopefully) it’e probably about time to get realistic. The modern automatic can shift more accurately and through more possible gear ratios than you can. Get over it.

    • You’re right, of course – but you leave out the Fun Factor. Shifting yourself is enjoyable (if admittedly less precise, less efficient). You’re more involved as a driver. Consider: The ultimate end point of the logic that says efficiency is the most important thing of all is the driverless car. You just get in, strap in, and let the car do the driving. It becomes little more than an amusement park ride. Still fun, sure. But not quite as much fun as controlling the ride yourself.

  4. Couple Questions
    1. Isn’t it true that many new cars with 6/8 speed automatic transmissions not only get better mpg, but also accelerate at least as well as manual versions? I have always been a stick shift guy. But if I can get better mpg and accelerate as well with an auto, that’s the way I will roll.
    2. Isn’t it true that the reason new cars have these very efficient 6/8 speed auto transmissions is to achieve fedgov mandated mpg standards? It may be bad to have the fed mandates, but perhaps the cars that result aren’t all bad. 😉

    • Yup – the automatic versions are not only as quick, they’re more consistently quick. You get a near-perfect launch (and shifts) each time. That’s hard to do with a manual, even if you’re very good. Mileage is also as good or better, too.

      That said, a manual is still more engaging – and fun. To me, at least.

      • Let me add that manual transmissions will likely not only outlast automatics, but when they need fixing they’ll be easier and cheaper to repair.

        • True. Usually, the transmission itself will outlast the car. You may have to do do a clutch job once every 100k or so -but that’s not a big (or hugely expensive) thing.

    • Yes – unfortunately, the MT’s days may be numbered. If there’s no mileage or performance advantage to a manual, I don’t seee demand making it feasible to offer them on anything except maybe the new, reincarnated “muscle cars” or full on sports cars.

      I like MTs, since I’ve never met an automatic that really knows when I want to shift. They upshift too early, or don’t downshift to the gear I really want, or they go too far and skip over it altogether.

      The only time I wish I had an automatic is in traffic jams. Since I’m on the road at 5:30 a.m, at work by 6:00 and leave at 3:00 and home by 3:30, I generally avoid these.

      Perhaps they’ll keep making them just to keep us clutch and stick lovers happy.

      Something about feeling the vibrations of the powertrain through the stick seems “right.”

      I’m not banking on it. Margins are higher on autos as well…

      • Porsche’s the standard bearer with the new 7-sp-manual on its 991 iteration of the Carrera. And the BMW 5-series is the only sedan in its class, Stateside, offering a standard transmission; the irony: it’s an option!

        • The good news is manuals have made something of a comeback in smaller cars. Six-speeds are now pretty common in economy-type cars.

          But as you move up the food chain, they disappear (or become much harder to find). The Nissan Maxima is now automatic (CVT) only. The Ford Taurus, including the SHO, is automatic only, too. I think the only GM sedans that aren’t economy cars that offer a manual transmission are the Caddy CTS and Buick Regal GS. All current Chrysler cars are automatic only. Except for the Challenger (and the not-yet-here Dart) all current Dodge cars are automatic-only, too.

          I don’t think anyone makes a manual-equipped 1500-series truck anymore. Ditto larger SUVs.

          I think one of the big reasons why is lack of interest in driving – which has to do with the near-impossibility of doing so on roads glutted with traffic and heavily policed by revenue-collectors. I used to live in the DC area. Part of the reason we left was that driving had become a mostly unpleasant chore. No matter how great the car, it was rendered useless by the Clovers all around you. After awhile, it gets tedious dealing with a clutch when you can’t even get out of second or third gear most of the time – or drive much faster than 60 for more than a few moments at a time. Bump and grind, bump and grind… clutch in, clutch out… in… and out. Still not really moving much. Better to just leave it in Drive, turn op the radio or play with the GPS…

          • Yes, revenue collection avoidance has become a frustrating, tiresome component of the daily commute or weekend romp — one more thing one’s attention gets compartmentalized by — detracting from the joy of driving.

            In the UK, some Jaguars are equipped with an “ASL” button. What’s that you ask? Press that, and your supercharged 500 hp Jag will not exceed a limit that you’ve pre-set, like say, 20mph. Useful when you don’t want a speed-camera ticket. We’re not that far off. If yo want to see where we’re headed, just look at the UK today.

            • Yup. But, we still have at least a little wiggle room.

              A few years ago, I bought a V1 radar detector and it literally transformed my life. I now routinely drive fast freely – that is, ticket-free. I’ve always driven fast – but I used to get tickets at least once a year, if not several times a year. Mostly, these were of the absolute BS sort such as 67 in a 55 or 42 in a 35 (both sorts of zones notoriously under-posted and so everyone, or just about everyone, drives faster, so it’s just a matter of time before your “number” comes up. The V1 alerts me to such speed traps and so helps me to avoid them. It’s also saved me from a couple of potentially huge tickets (over 80 MPH, which in VA is statutory “reckless” driving, if you can believe that).

              I would never drive without a radar detector again.

  5. Higher tire pressure means less rolling resistance and better gas mileage. That’s a good thing. I wonder, however, if high(er) pressure tires might transmit a little more vibration and noise when rolling over less than perfect pavement. Has anyone ever driven with them?

    • I have – and, yes. In general new cars have much firmer (often harsher) rides than the cars of the past – to a great extent because of low-aspect ratio (short sidewall) tires and high inflation pressures. On the other hand, they also don’t wallow and heave like the old stuff did!

    • Higher tire pressures and lower profile tires do transmit more vibration than conventional tires and inflation pressures. However, I think auto manufacturers have been able to mitigate that effect with better designed suspensions.

      The big downside to higher inflation pressures and lower profile tires is that the tires are much more susceptible to damaged from road hazards. That doesn’t matter so much if you live in the desert southwest. However, if you live in the Detroit metro area, it is a huge downside. In the great lakes area, there are only two seasons: winter and road construction. And the roads never really get fixed. Add to that the fact that many new cars come with an inflator kit instead of a proper spare. Hitting a pothole with a car with low profile tires can quickly become a $400 or $600 ordeal. It costs so much because hitting a pothole with a low profile tire often results in a bent or broken rim and if you don’t have a spare, you will need a tow truck.

      Contrast that to a 90’s era vehicle with 195/75R14 tires. That tire size is much less susceptible to damage from road hazards. Even if you did blow a tire out, it was less likely to damage the rim. And if it did damage the rim, it probably wasn’t a big deal. Those cars used plain steel wheels with a hub cab. You could pick up a replacement rim for $20 at a junkyard. Also, those cars came with a spare. You didn’t have to call a tow truck.

      • Test driving new cars as I do (and have been doing for 20 years) I can tell you that in general, cars today (modern cars generally) have much firmer rides than cars built prior to the early ’90s – which was about the time that “sportiness” came in vogue across the spectrum. Today, luxury cars are really luxury-sport cars. The last true luxury car – as it once was defined – was the Lincoln Town Car. It had that isolated, pillowy ride once typical (and desired) of luxury cars.

        You’re absolutely right about modern rolling stock being more susceptible to damage. It was much harder to hurt, say, a 15-inch steel wheel with a 225/70-15 tire on it vs. an 18 inch alloy wheel with a 40-series tire on it.

  6. The point about gasoline engine fuel consumption converging towards diesel engines’ numbers is well noted. The “F30” BMW 328i, with its 2 liter turbo four is projected to deliver 28c/36h mpg with its 8-speed auto version — nearly as good as the 335d. Its performance equals or eclipses the E36 (1995-2000) M3, and is not too far off from the previous generation (E46) M3. However where the diesel will still have an advantage is with its higher “highway” torque allowing for more effortless and efficient top-gear ratio 50-70 mph performance — no downshifting needed for overcoming grades and for most highway-speed passing. Many owners of 335d’s regularly report 40+ mpg diesel efficiency.

    With design evolution, even this difference will be overcome. Today, what limits a gasoline engine’s efficiency are emissions regulations that preclude lean-burn (greater than 14.7:1 air:fuel) because of NOx emissions increases. However, if and when diesel-like NOx reduction methods are developed (or if EPA regs are relaxed, yeah, right… har har!) for use on petrol engines, we may experience greater efficiency — more power extracted per unit weight of petrol.

    • Thanks, Carzzi – and, yup!

      It’s too bad about the NOx issue, especially because the amounts involved are so minuscule. If the regs. were relaxed and made more reasonable, we could have 50 MPG diesels again.

      • Off topic, but you were mentioning fuel consumption.
        I bought a Factory Five roadster replica that has a stroked 5L to 347 CID. Injected and Vortech at 12 PSI boost.
        Does anyone have a guess on fuel consumption figures?

    • There’s no diesel yet that matches the fuel mileage of my Geo Metro. Best car I’ve ever owned, or expect to own.

  7. While it has nothing to do with this column, I have to share this. It’s about cars and clovers.

    The Romulus, MI police department is pulling over “good” drivers to reward them with Subway gift cards.

    What’s a “good” driver you ask?

    A driver who doesn’t “speed” or a driver who “comes to a complete stop at a stop sign.”

    In other words: A clover

    The police officer interviewed likes the idea that he could reward “safe” drivers. The old geezer interviewed was happy to be pulled over, get a “reward” (from robbed taxpayer loot) and laughingly said “I thought I did something wrong…”

    We all know how “unsafe” it is to roll through a stop sign when you can see A HALF A FUCKING MILE IN EVERY DIRECTION AND THERE’S NOTHING (except maybe a cop hiding behind a bush). Yes – better to come to a complete stop and waste gas, time, and add wear and tear to your brakes and car in general.

    Trained fucking rats we’ve become.

    • In addition, how creepy is it that people don’t object to being pulled over by an armed cop for a (so-called) “good” reason?

      On stops: I live in the very rural country. Every single day, I lave my house and drive the appx. three miles to the “T” intersection at the main road, where there is (of course) a stop sign. You can see at least 1/4-1/2 mile in either direction, so if no one is coming, I don’t stop. I slow and make my turn. Reason? Maintain momentum, saves gas and time as well as less wear and tear on the vehicle, which at this point is still cold, having just left my driveway a few minutes earlier.

      Naturally, this will appall Clovers.

      • Well – one good thing about it:

        Now we know how to answer the armed tax feeder’s favorite question: “Do you know why I stopped you?”

        We can now reply: “I figured it must be to reward me with a Subway gift card for my good driving skills.”

        However, such a “wise guy” comment will likely get you tazed nowadays.

        I feel a bit better now. Apologize for my cursing rant.

        • Regarding Blakes commment about do you know why I stopped you?

          My answer, No, I am not a mind reader. I figure that this stop is about revenue generation and your quota.

  8. Both chevy and ford have quite offering manual transmissions in their lighter pickups(I think up to and including the 2500/250 series). I agree that the clutch disk in a manual never wears out but the problem is with the other clutch parts such as the throw out bearing, pilot bearing, and the clutch slave clyinder which in later years is on the tranny shaft instead of on the outside of the clutch housing(when that item goes bad than a person has to tear the vehicle down from the motor back). The next problem and all three biggies used for a number of years a tranny that had fiber shifters which did not last;therefore we idiot people that bought these manuals tore them down on a pretty regular basis just to replace shifters and plactic throwout bearings and slave clyinders(really not much fun and expensive!!!).

  9. And for a very small increase in fuel efficiency, and a small increase in reliability, you have something that is virtually impossible to fix at home, and very expensive to hire repairs for. If I could buy a model A, new, at a competitive price, and could get parts for it, I would jump at the chance.

    • I wrote an article along these lines a few months back – so I agree with you!

      While a Mode A wouldn’t be my first choice (too expensive; would probably need pretty extensive mods to be viable as an everyday driver) there are numerous affordable options that would give you what you’re asking about. For example, an old Beetle. You can find very nice “drivers” for under $8,000. While not the quickest cars in the world, they’re quick enough to still be everyday driveable. Or, get something like a 1970s-era Nova. With a small-block V-8 in it and an overdrive transmission, it would be plenty quick, reasonably fuel-efficient and extremely inexpensive (and simple) to keep/maintain.

      A few years back, I had a buddy who had a nice, original 1973 (I think it was) Ford Maverick. Not a Grabber, but it did have the 302 V-8, with an automatic and AC. We added headers and duals (not easy on the Maverick!) plus a four-barrel. It had “highway” gears in the rear, so an overdrive wasn’t necessary to get decent mileage out of it. Total investment: About $6k. That car was a great everyday driver. I borrowed it a bunch of times and drove it in heavy bumper-to-bumper traffic, on the highway – etc.

      It’s easy to build something along these lines if you wanted to…

      • I had a similar 72 Maverick. 302 ci, 3 speed on the floor and a 4bbl from the factory. Gawd I miss that car. It didn’t have enough weight in the ass end to hold it down when you dropped the clutch, but oh my god it was a holy terror in second gear!
        We cut the factory 2 into one off and and made it into hillbilly style dual with flex pipe and cherry bomb mufflers. Loud enough to wake half of Norfolk naval yard! Oh to be twenty and down south again,,,

        • somebody must of added the 4bbl. V8 Mavs from ford in the US market always got crippled with 2bbl carbs and single exhaust and 3spd trans.

          • That’s my recollection also – I think (again, if my fading memory serves) that even the Grabber versions only had a 2 BBL from the factory.

    • Restored Model A Fords are easy to come by. Leaf thru a issue of Hemmings Motor News at your library. Also, there are at least five catalogue and on-line parts supply houses that carry virtually any spare part your might need. My 1930 Roadster keeps going year after year after year…

  10. For the past 20+ years, in order to increase fuel efficiency, I’ve been using synthetics in the engine & tranny and keeping an add’l 4-5 psi in my 60-series tires (it also decreases tread wear on the tire edges). Those small changes along with a mostly easy driving style have added over 15% to the EPA figures for my cars. It surprises me that it took the car-makers so long to figure out what many of us autoproletariat have known & experienced for years. Cheers.


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