business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

We often talk here about disruptive technologies, but there was a piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend that served as a reminder that this is not a new phenomenon. It's been happening ... well, forever. (What was the wheel, if not a disruptive technology?)

And speaking of wheels ... the LA Times, in a story about the upcoming Los Angeles Auto Show, noted that the manual transmission, "available in nearly half of new models in the U.S. a decade ago," is only going to be available in about a quarter of models this year, essentially "going the way of the rumble seat."

And if the stick shift is available on 27 percent of new car models this year, the actual sales figure is much lower than that - one estimate is that just three percent of new cars are sold with manual transmissions, which once were "standard equipment on all motor vehicles, preferred for its dependability, fuel efficiency and sporty characteristics."

As car manufacturers have "perfected the automatic transmission, and learned to make it less expensive and more dependable, drivers became accustomed to the relative ease of leaving the shifting to the car," the story says. "Automatics gradually became the preferred option, and automakers began offering them in fewer vehicles, saving them money because they no longer had to manufacture two drive trains." And while manual transmissions used to be more fuel efficient, that's changed over the years as manufacturers now can make automatic transmissions that are more efficient than any driver could be.

Now, the numbers suggest that some models are seen as more appropriate for a stick shift than others. Two of them are cars I can appreciate - the Ford Mustang, and the Mazda Miata (six out of 10 of which are sold with a manual transmission). I drove two Miatas over the period of 20 years, and current drive a 2014 Mustang convertible .... and I can't imagine driving these with automatic transmissions.

Purists say that the sales trend toward automatics is a shame, and I tend to agree with them. One of the things that I've always found is that driving a stick actually means you have to pay more attention to the road. I've driven my Mustang from Connecticut to Oregon and back the last two summers, and part of the fun has been the fact that I'm actually doing the driving, not just pointing it in the right direction and putting it on cruise control.

Of course, at some level the disruptive trend that has made manual transmissions an endangered species now is leading us toward an era of self-driving cars that will change the world yet again.

It's an Eye-Opener. It is progress. But as for me, I'll stick with my stick.
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