Technological Nostalgia: The Manual Transmission

Recently I need to buy a new car, so I searched online for some inexpensive entry-level automobile. Somewhat to my surprise, I found some models with manual transmission. These are not old models that were made in the 90’s, but ones made this year. Technologically, there are no reasons for making cars with manual transmissions anymore. A few decades ago, automatic transmissions were expensive, fragile and impractical for consumer-level cars. But now the technology has improved to the point where automatic is inexpensive and reliable.

I have never driven a car with manual transmission, but I understand that it takes some skill to do it. Understanding when to shift gears is not something a novice can get a hang of easily, and doing it inappropriately can kill the engine and put you in danger. Some claim that shifting manually is more efficient than shifting automatically, but such gains in efficiency are so small that it can be easily overcome by getting a more powerful engine. Automatic transmission makes driving much easier, yet manual transmissions continue to be produced today.

The reasons that some people still prefer manual transmission are mostly psychological. People who drive manual feel a greater sense of control. Perhaps the word “control” is inappropriate, perhaps a better term is that they “feel at one with the car.” I know this sounds quasi-mystical, but learning to drive a car isn’t learning how to control a machine, but to accustom oneself to the workings of a vehicle so one feels that the car is a part of one’s own body. This is quite a powerful feeling, since it makes the person feel they have appropriated the power of the car for him or herself. Having such fine control over the gears of the car enhances this feeling of power.

Many Americans have an image of themselves as ridiculously macho figures who are powerful both physically and psychologically. Sometimes they express this image through their choice of vehicles, which is seen in the plague of SUVs, pickup-trucks and sports car in our streets. The manual transmission is another version of it. We shouldn’t underestimate this factor in our choice of cars.

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