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Manual Transmission? What’s That?

Taking the Driver Out of the Equation

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Talking to people who are in their teens or even 20s can be quite scary. Mention that a truck has a standard transmission, and they are very likely to give you a blank look. Even saying it’s a manual can inspire confusing questions like: “You mean it has paddle shifters?” While certain technologies have gone by the wayside for good reasons, I see no reason for things like manual transmissions to disappear—but they are. For those who are still confused, a manual transmission requires the driver to shift his own gears and push in his own clutch pedal. The driver has full control of the transmission, which is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Yet as cars and trucks get more and more advanced, the trend is to take more and more control away from the driver.

While I’m not against passive safety features like airbags, some of the stuff vehicles do now is just plain silly. If a vehicle can park itself, slow itself on a tight corner, and warn you of vehicles in your blind spot, what incentive is there to try and be a good driver? All those little gizmos just mean the minor accidents will be avoided, but drivers can still plow headlong into a cement truck at 80 mph because they were texting, drinking their morning coffee, and trying to change the radio station all at the same time. I maintain that a driver who has to worry about shifting his own gears is one who is paying better attention to the road.

A couple of years ago at Diesel Power Challenge, I was fiddling around with a Toyota Camry rental car. This was right after the news of the runaway Prius down in San Diego went viral, and everybody was joking around about out-of-control Toyotas. “How hard is it to downshift?” I joked, bumping the shifter over into manual mode and putting it down a gear. “Beep, beep, beep,” the Toyota responded with a small warning chime, and the car refused to downshift. It apparently thought it was smarter than I was—a fact that was soon to be driven home. I kept exploring, seeing if I could put it in Neutral while on the throttle, or do other things of that nature. Then, suddenly, as I was stopped in traffic, the car jumped forward at half power or so. While I only went a couple of feet forward, if I hadn’t had my foot on the brake, the car could have smashed into the truck in front of me. The real scary part was I hadn’t even hit the throttle when the car suddenly accelerated. It was at that point that I decided maybe it was a bad idea to see if I could confuse the car to run away on me, because what would I do if I succeeded? It’s not like I could push in the clutch. I left it alone for the rest of the trip. (Smart move—ed.)

Perhaps because of its engine’s medium-duty roots, the Ram diesel is the only one of the Big Three to still offer a manual. GM and Ford have switched solely to automatics, probably due to the fact that more than 90 percent of its diesel truck sales were autos. I know I sound old already, but I’ll feel a genuine sense of loss when it comes time to say goodbye to that single holdout, and I’ll feel bad for those who have never had the opportunity to shift their own gears.

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