Latest Reader Question: Disappearing Third Pedal (May 7, 2018)

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Matt asks: I’m curious as to why so many automakers in the U.S. are moving away from manual transmissions. I recently visited the UK and it seemed like most of their cars have manual transmissions. Is this simply a result of consumer preference in the U.S. or are there policies in place that are causing (whether intentional or not) automakers to move away from the manual trans or in some cases not even offer them in many vehicles?

My reply: It’s both of those things, Matt.

In the first place, the government’s fuel economy fatwas – more specifically, the tests the government uses to measure a car’s average city/highway fuel economy – favor automatics because they can be programmed to do better on the tests than the same car with a manual transmission (the performance/economy of which is more affected by the variable of the driver’s skill – or lack of it). If you check the stats of most new cars that offer a manual or automatic transmission option with a given engine, you’ll find that – usually – the automatic version scores a few MPG higher on the tests.

Since these tests are the basis for levying the fines that attend the fatwas, there has been a general, industry-wide move away from manual transmissions – even in vehicles that (historically) used to always at least offer them, such as trucks.

The second factor is declining interest – most people seem to prefer automatics and probably (my guess) at least half and maybe two-thirds of the driving population doesn’t even know how to drive a car with a manual transmission.

Part of this is the drift toward passivity behind the wheel – a function of the demonization of involved, active driving (it’s portrayed as “aggressive” and “unsafe”). People are browbeaten to drive “defensively,” which doesn’t mean being responsible, aware and considerate. It means a person conditioned to regard anything more than the most tepid, turtle-like acceleration as  . . . aggressive (and unsafe) … a hyper-cautious, rule-obeying drone incapable of exercising independent judgment.

This sort of “driver” is a meatsack behind the wheel, target-fixated on the bumper of the car ahead, which he follows (usually too closely) like one elephant after the next at the circus. A manual transmission for such a driver would be as pointless as sending a gay guy to the Bunny Ranch.

The two things – government fuel economy fatwas and the declining interest in shifting for oneself – are of course inter-related. As manual-equipped cars grow ever-scarcer, fewer people ever learn to drive a car so equipped. They can’t drive a manual-equipped car. So they have to buy an automatic. So the dealers stock them – and the manufacturers build them.

This – along with the automatic’s slight fuel efficiency advantage – puts more automatics on the road, accelerating the drive toward an automatic-only future.

It’s already happened with at least one category or vehicle – 1500 series trucks – and is well advanced in other categories, such as mid-sized sedans – which are almost all automatic-only now.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…

. . .

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  1. It seems now even the SECOND pedal is on the way to being removed…. The new Nissan Leaf here is being marketed to hipster millennial tree hugger types as having a real technological breakthrough called an “e-pedal”…. what that means is press the “e-pedal”…. you go forward, press it more, you go faster…. release it, and you come to a stop. Much like the first toy RC car you had as a kid….. One more aspect of life dumbed down for the sack of meat behind the wheel….

    • Wow that seems tremendously stupid. Figures it would appear on an electric car first.

      How would you even do a panic stop?

      • There is a brake, but only for use in emergency. But that said – if someone gets used to this sort of car, driving with one pedal…. not sure if they will have the instinct to slam the brake like current drivers have been trained to do….

  2. I like the control of the manual, and being old school, I grew up w/manuals having more performance across the board: MPG’s, power, maintenance, etc. All of those have been erased since the 90’s. I have come to believe that an automatic transmission is the better choice. However, one caveat: …. to mean the regular 4 and 5 speed autos up until the late 2000’s. I think the new 10speed and CVT’s are too finicky to lay any claim to mechanical toughness.

    As Eric repeatedly points out, the tech in cars is getting too high to become cumbersome. Those who want a tough, simple and serviceable vehicle (to include all of its components) cannot readily find that in any new car offering. My opinion is that for current new cars, the only way to find the above is in either their bare-bones base models (e.g. Nissan Versa) or 3/4ton trucks.

  3. I’m a hardcore manual guy but the commute and traffic can get tiring here in the city. The sad part is the automatics accelerate faster than the manuals now a days.


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