SOLs for Cars

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Have you heard about SOL for cars?

It’s like the Standards of Learning for kids –  the tests administered by the schools as a way to gauge whether (cue The Chimp) the children is learning. SOLs are widely considered a scam because the kids aren’t learning – just being taught to pass the test.

It’s a game.

Likewise, the government’s miles-per-gallon testing. The car companies build their cars to perform as well as possible on the EPA’s test loop, so they can tout the best-possible city/highway numbers – and not just to entice buyers. These numbers are also used to calculate the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) numbers which the car companies have to deal with. When their “fleet average” – the combined mileage of all the vehicles they sell – dips below whatever Uncle says the mandatory minimum is (it’s currently 35.5 MPG) they get fined and these fines, of course, are passed on to us.

So it’s very important to do well on the tests.

This is why almost all new cars come only with automatic transmissions.

These transmissions can be programmed – optimized to perform best – on the EPA’s tests. They are set up to shift as soon as possible into overdrive (many new automatics have more than one overdrive gear) which is what you want if you’re trying to do as well as possible on the test.

But out in the real world, your mileage may and probably will vary.

An automatic that’s programmed to upshift as soon as possible for the sake of maximizing the MPGs does so at the expense of acceleration. The car feels sluggish, flat. This tends to encourage the driver to push harder on the accelerator pedal, in order to force a downshift – in order to get the car to accelerate.

This tends to use more gas.

You might do better with the manual – assuming you know how to drive one. And assuming one’s available.

Because of the need to do well on the tests, it’s probably not.

Manuals are too variable.

Driver A – who knows his business – might squeeze higher MPGs out of his manual-equipped car than Driver B (who doesn’t) in the same car with an automatic transmission. And Driver B – who rides the clutch, lugs the engine, shifts too soon/too late, etc. – might get much worse mileage out of a given car with a manual vs. the same car with an automatic.

The problem is that the number of drivers who do know how to properly drive a car with a manual transmission is dwindling – and this dwindling (plus CAFE compliance pressures) creates its own synergistic effect:

Manual transmissions are fading away.

Even in the kinds of vehicles that – formerly – were most likely to offer them or even come standard with them.

Trucks, for instance.

The big ones (1500 series) are all automatic-only. Eight and ten-speed automatics, most of them. The medium-sized ones are almost automatic-only. Toyota still offers a manual in the Tacoma pick-up, but only in one (expensive) trim to discourage volume sales (for CAFE calculation reasons). The Chevy Colorado (and its GMC twin, the Canyon) can be ordered with a manual, but only in the base trim – and with the base (four cylinder) engine and only with 2WD. Again, for reasons of CAFE calculation.  The optional V6 (and turbo-diesel) and 4WD versions of this truck come only with automatic transmissions.

Even economy cars are rapidly transitioning to automatic only. A few still offer them, but the nudge is toward the automatic. In this case, it’s often a continuously variable (CVT) automatic or “dual clutch” automated manual transmission – the latter a kind of backhanded acknowledgment that manuals are or at least, can be, more efficient than automatics . . . provided the human variable is taken out of the equation.

In the case of the dual-clutch automated manual, a computer control the engaging and disengaging of the clutch, the timing of the shifts and so on. Without the efficiency losses through the hydraulic circuit that are the automatic’s weak point, fuel economy-wise.

Of course, if people knew how to properly clutch and shift for themselves – and if the government spent its energies protecting our rights (including our right to buy whatever vehicle type best suits our needs and wants, as we see them) instead of violating them by issuing fuel economy fatwas that are properly none of its business – then none of this would be necessary.

. . .

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36 COMMENTS

  1. I read that article. Not mentioned was what happens on a 2 minute light cycle, you are stopped and the outside temp. is in the high 30s or low 40s (C) and the air con is off. The air con then has to work much harder on startup which uses all the fuel saved and then some. Not to mention the effect of constantly changing extremes of temp in such a short time on your body and on your temper. Increasing road rage no doubt. Gee road rage was unheard of b4 Uncle Sam’s deep regulation of automobiles. I wonder why?

  2. FASCISM defined:

    government control of private means of production.

    If this insanity does not fit that definition nothing I can imagine will.

    A rough pill to swallow, but that’s what is happening in the “land of the free and the ome of the brave”.

  3. For the longest time, I only would buy manual transmission cars……because they were FASTER. As a secondary benefit, they usually got better mpg too. Now, both of those advantages often go to the auto trans vehicles. And my motivation to buy a manual has diminished accordingly.

    I’m sure manuals still have a few advantages, but control in high performance driving doesn’t seem to be one….at least not with the best paddle shift autos.

    Absolutely endorse continued availability of stick shifts for those who really want them. But for the vast majority, including performance enthusiasts…….who needs them…..or even wants them?

    • Hi Mike,

      This is BMW’s reasoning as regards their moving away from manuals – and from a technical perspective, it’s true. The automatic shifts more precisely and faster than most human drivers.

      But what about fun?

      • Well I’ve driven both types of tranny. On a manual when you slam on the brakes, the manual car will buck and jerk if you don’t downshift, and often will die, leaving you with nonpowered brakes and steering. That often happened with 60s and 70s cars with manuals.
        And since I live in Australia, a manual is bad news when cars on the freeway at 100 km are spaced just 5 meters apart for kms on end. A slight tap on the brake and you have to move the shifter. If you don’t then the car may stall.
        Autos are so much better in that you can concentrate on the driving with 2 hands on the wheel, and leave the tranny to do the shifting. Makes for smoother flow in dense traffic.
        With the current plethora of clovers, scameras, police with anprs, dense traffic and peds and bike riders breaking all the rules, driving with an auto makes driving less stressful and allows us to concentrate on all the clovers (many who are peds and bicyclists) and evade their attempts to impose their law on the rest of us.

  4. I drove a BMW with the auto stop-start and soon figured out that at a stop you could turn the wheel slightly and the engine would start again and keep running. That is, until the next red light.

    I absolutely hated that feature and would not buy a vehicle with that option.

  5. What I never see mentioned is that automatics can be a real hazard when driving on ice. At slow speeds, the braking effort required to stop the wheels from being turned by the engine just at idle is greater than that required to stop the vehicle. It becomes literally impossible to stop or steer. I’ve found that it often works better to just put the transmission in neutral and use the brakes gingerly.

    With a manual, you can usually just crawl along in low or reverse, or in the worst case push in the clutch to avoid adding more motion.

      • Uhhhh, Bill, he’s right. When the drive wheels in an auto trans cara stil l have the gearbox engaged, the power put to the whee;s at dead idle is more than the braking effort to keep the non-drive wheels from skidding. His jigger rig of poping it into neutral then removes the power to the drive wheels, and all four now brake as gently and evenly as possible. I’ve had gthe same complaint. The one car I’ve owned (multiples of.. they are great cars) that does NOT exhjibit this problem is the Mercedes diesel sedans/wagons from mid-7-‘s to 1986. The ones with the five cylinder diesel and four speed automatic. Part of wht makes this work is that the diesel idles VERY slowly when warmed, and the torque convertor is high stall… so the engine has to wind up a bit before you get much coupling. The well blanced four wheel disc brakes are also very well balanced, and overbraking on either end does not happen. But, what do you expect from a car designed and bult in Germany for European winters……. I’ve not driven a better full sized sedan than these.

        • I guess I’ve never noticed the issue since I have always been able to control every vehicle I have driven since the early 70’s, regardless of what they wanted to do. Class 8 tractors with trailers and E-150 van both out-weigh and under maneuver full sized sedans, and I have never had any problem with either of them, either.

  6. This is why sociopaths are the norm for those government busybodies that think they have to meddle into every nook and cranny of our lives. The idea of being able to boss others around while holding a gun (figuratively speaking, in the sense of saying, “I’m in charge here.”) appeals to those types of people, and the more control offered, the better their ego feels.

    I am getting depressed that even the typical sports car (or what passes for one under these fatwas) is now coming with an auto trans as standard! I prefer these types of cars, but don’t feel comfortable with having fluids control the transmission as much as a direct mechanical connection.

  7. This is exactly what VW did with their diesels and got crucified over it. Just a matter of time before Federal GovCo drops it weight on the rest of them over this.

    Empires and tyrannies never devolve in exactly the same way and for the same reasons but, they all eventually collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. “Murica will be no different. We can only hope and pray for as peaceful a collapse as that of the Soviets.

  8. I exclusively drove manual transmissions for nearly 40 years until just over 4 years ago. I loved stick shifts, and I knew what I was doing and got good fuel economy and always got much longer clutch life than average drivers. Besides the disappearing availabilty of cars (for example – try to find one on a Civic that is not an SI, good luck), my then 57-year old left knee was worn out from a lifetime of using a cluch. Stop and go traffic in the Atlanta area doesn’t help either. I am now driving an ’13 Civic with an automatic. But I do regret the lack of manuals available for purchase. Driving stick shifts all of those years made me a better driver.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Amen.

      It’s been said that the advent of the automatic transmission heralded the End of general competence behind the wheel. I agree. Even if you end up driving an automatic-equipped car, learning how to drive stick almost necessarily makes you a better driver. You develop skills – and habits – that a person who never learns does not.

    • Hello Jeff,

      I have been driving manual transmission cars (and trucks) for years. I currently own a Scion xB with a five speed manual transmission. I’ve had it for 12 years. It was the perfect thing when I lived in the mountains but now I live in congested, stop and go lights every block, South Florida. Stop at a light. Go to the next light and stop at that one and on and on it goes here in South Florida. I think all of the civil engineers here are graduates of ding-dong school. What a pain in the knee this is. I am considering buying an automatic to avoid this discomfort. Actually, the better option is to move back into the mountains, far, far away from this maddening crowd.

    • Stop and go traffic is a real pain when driving a stick. The odd thing is I’m sure there would be a lot less of it if manuals were the norm. Most people are fine with the “move 5 feet and brake” method of going through a traffic jam. If they’d just wait a little bit longer instead of maintaining a constant distance away from the vehicle in front of them this probably wouldn’t happen as much. But riding on the brake doesn’t have any disadvantage for an individual driver so it happens.

      I always feel bad for the truckers stuck in stop and go traffic. I can see they try to keep creeping along best they can, and even try to let a space open up in front (usually someone jumps in from another lane) so they don’t have to clutch-brake-clutch-brake. And if they can keep the truck moving at even 1-2 MPH it often helps with traffic flow. I usually try to do the same thing, attempting to figure out what speed seems to be average and just go that speed. Usually any gap that forms is filled by some idiot thinking they can get ahead and we’re right back to stop and go again.

      • The root of all automotive evil is the automatic transmission.

        When and where the MT is dominate traffic flows better and traffic jams are not nearly as a horrible experience. It’s the AT that just encourages so much bad behavior.

    • Nothing shortens clutch life as much as using it. Most truck drivers learn to float gears before they think about owning a truck. The same can be done in many old-style automotive manuals, while they exist short of a special order.

      • clutchless shifting in a big rig is faster and more accurate, and the ONLY way you can manage a twin stick tractor.

        I had an early LandRover, mid 1960’s estat, four cylinder (only one) and four speed with two speed transfer box. First and second were non-synchro. The transfer box was designed so it could be shifted on the fly, IF you knew how. I learned.

        Then one day on a long road trip the clutch stopped disengaging. Could not find the service spares, did not want to wait oR miss my travel plans. SO… I’d start and warm the engine a bit, shut it off. Put it in first gear low range, press the start button. Engine would roll over, car would move, ehgine would light, add throttle, float the shift into non-synchro second, and on through to top. Still in low range, though. Not conducive to highway travel. SO… kick the main box into neutral, wait just the right amount fo time, float the transfer box from low to high range, readjust throttle, slip it into second, now in high range. Continue on into top high. Coming to a stop, reverse the prceedure, hoping the reason for the stop would disappear so I’d not have to have off the key and start from full stop engine dead. My trip was another two thousand miles, in town, off road in some rough country, back through LA’s freeways, and on home up north. Did not slow me down one bit. One does what one must to get done what must be done.

  9. Can’t wait for big rigs to get that stop/start feature. It should be a real hoot on a 6% grade with some tiny POS car so close to the rear you can’t see it(it happens all the time). You gotta wonder if 4 wheeler drivers never notice a truck sometimes goes backward before going forward. It may have to do with you just getting in that truck for the first time and the clutch is totally different in engagement from whatever else you’ve driven. It may have to do with a worn out shift tower you hunt for the lowest gear the entire time the light is red. Maybe you get it, maybe you get second or third instead or low or 1st.

    I used to drive a truck that would put itself into gear when you were sitting with it in neutral and had the clutch out. I freaked out the first time(and every time thereafter)and told everybody in the company. Ah, old man stupid, no truck can do that. It decided on reverse one day when I was out of it and due to nearly no parking brakes, backed into the truck behind it. It don’t get any better than that.

    Well, I was told by an astonished Foreman one day that the truck put itself into gear and nearly ran over he and his porky companion…..as if it had never been mentioned before. I laughed since I never intended to drive it again.

  10. I HATE automatics. I haven’t owned one since 2001. I really don’t like the fact that manuals cannot be had on new trucks. Plus, those new automatics cost a lot more than manuals and repairing or replacing them is a nightmare. It’s not like you can get a Ford rebuilt C4 for $300 and put in your truck in a weekend’s time over a few beers anymore.

    Oh, if only I could still get a factory new truck with nothing on it but a bench seat and a three-on-the-tree…

  11. The other major case of “teaching to the test” Ive noticed with newer cars – the tiny turbo engines. Again, when driven by the guy in a lab coat with a clipboard from the government, it will probably stay out of the turbo zone of the engine and hence give slightly better fuel economy…. But when sold to normal people they will, quite often floor the thing. And when that happens the turbo comes online and fuel consumption goes through the roof…..

    I can already see the next “scandal” in the auto industry which will cause the usual outrage – That real world MPG isnt close to the MPG on the official listed… and ofcourse the government will again step in to save the day by yet more regulation (to prevent more competition) and fines on the evil auto industry which will in the end be paid by us…..

  12. Back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, before PC, Reganomics, etc, SOL was the abbreviation for Shit Out of Luck!
    From all indications I’ve seen, it still is. Teachers who promoted rational, critical thinking, you know, real education, abhorred the whole concept calling it “teaching to the test”. Those who embraced it, saw it as an opportunity to do fewer lesson plans and have more leisure time after work. Why educate, when you can simply monitor and dictate? It was an administrator’s wet-dream come true, a standardized cookie-cutter or brick-mold. No more need to be creative and “engage” the minds of the students. Just Lord of their bodies and turn in academic statistics, and you get a pay raise, yippee! Don’t waste time trying to Educate, simply Indoctrinate! The same is true for the auto industry, and every other enterprise the govt. is involved in.
    Standardize and Administrate, put it in a file drawer, and call it “work”, then ass-rape the public for your salary! I saw the end coming with the first can of Pringle’s!

  13. Interesting article about stop-start:
    https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/new-cars/stop-start-long-term-impact-your-car-s-engine

    The article mentions new crankshaft bearings and oils that will help prevent wear from oil starvation. Seems like these are a good thing but even better if you disable automatic start stop. Another article mentioned battery wear and tear (mentioning “Current AGM and EFBs degrade rapidly, with AGM batteries losing half of the charge acceptance within two weeks after first use”), although I didn’t include it because it was from 2011 and I would imagine some of the battery “fixes” discussed are probably implemented by now. Again, seems like an improved battery will be even better if you don’t force it to discharge all the time. My two prior vehicles had batteries that were factory original for their entire lives, and yes I tested them regularly. I’ve read in the Cherokee owners’ forums of people going through a battery a year. It almost has to be due to engine start/stop and a lot of city driving.

    My vehicle starting procedure now includes three button pushes. 1) starter button. 2) auto-start/stop disable button. 3) Electric “parking” brake release button. Almost makes it feel like I’m a pilot going through a checklist (or driving one of the vehicles from the short story The Marching Morons). And I seriously doubt I’m getting any improvement in fuel economy with the start/stop system engaged, nor the 5 overdrive gears on my vehicle’s 9 speed transmission -especially since I’ve only ever seen it go into 9th gear once, while in Utah, going 80ish MPH.

    Seems to me if you’re going to bring criminal charges against VW for “cheating” on the tests you’d better go after everyone else for automatic start/stop too. According to this old NY Times article it seems that in the real world the guy interviewed says he’s not seeing any real improvement in fuel savings with the system engaged. Huh.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/08/automobiles/wheels/start-stop-technology-is-coming-to-cars-like-it-or-not.html

    The fuel savings with start-stop can add up. Under average driving conditions, savings are 3 percent to 5 percent. But with a lot of stops and traffic lights that stay red for extended periods, that can rise to 10 percent, said Robert Fascetti, vice president for powertrains at Ford.

    Dr. Tao said he had not experienced that level of savings; he estimates the cut in fuel use to be about one mile per gallon.

    I’m sure the start-stop systems, automatic transmission shift points and everything else going into the drivetrain these days is designed around the CAFE standards tests. I’m also fairly certain that the manufacturers are gelding their vehicles to game the system, the exception being that instead of giving customers what they want (like VW switching back to real driving mode when out of the testing center) they screw over the customer by leaving the engine castrated.

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