Opinion: The male drivers who can’t let go of their gear lever

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As car manufacturers increasingly switch to electric driving, the days of manual transmissions are numbered.

Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer focusing on renewable energy in Europe. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. view more opinion on CNN.


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For old-fashioned car connoisseurs – mostly men – driving means operating a beloved vehicle by touch, with three pedals underfoot and a gear lever at hand.

Hayyan Al-Yousouf

Paul Hockenos

In Europe, this customer base is responsible for much of the whining about the demise of the manual transmission. And perhaps nowhere is it louder than in Germany, home of Porsche, BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz.

Take, for example, the German car writer for the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, who turned melancholy with a heartfelt ‘tribute to the good old days of the clutch and the gear lever’.

“What’s more fun than driving a sports car at high speeds on winding roads? Accelerate, downshift for the corner, turn in, roll, upshift again and ‘fly away’,” he wrote.

He lovingly describes the smooth gear lever knob nestled in his palm. (Sigmund Freud would have had no difficulty deducing the reasons for this allure.)

But it’s not just Europeans who are clinging (literally). In the US, there is apparently a young (also predominantly male) demographic that embraces manual driving and champions it as retro, much like Gen Z’s affinity for typewriters and vintage cameras. They feel there is something authentic about it: a connection between driver and vehicle that automation shuts down.

They may not know it, but both these European connoisseurs and young Americans agree with Robert M. Pirsig’s protagonist in his classic 1970s philosophical novel, ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, who feels one with his motorcycle because he understands how it functions. Simply pressing a button is a superficial way out.

Well, zen or not, the era of manual transmissions is coming to an end – and this layman isn’t shedding any tears.

It’s not just that I cringe at the abrasive screech of a failed downshift, that high-pitched follow-up that’s worse than fingernails across a blackboard. The sound blames and shames me for doing an injustice to the drivetrain. But this clearly never happens to the alpha males, the kind who love their engines and coax them into purring.

Today, however, there are crucial reasons – beyond the well-being of the transmission – for the end of the gearshift era, and why we should welcome it too.

Firstly, the oft-repeated advantages of a gear lever over an automatic have been redundant for years.

The wisdom of the twentieth century was that because manual transmissions had more gears than automatics – the latter usually only three – a nimble five-on-the-floor shifter could operate the engine more efficiently and thus cover more miles with the tank.

But technology has moved on and automatics with as many as nine gears are common. And they provide better mileage And drive faster than their stick-shift counterparts. The explanation: The automatics select the correct gear for the vehicle, usually the highest acceleration possible. The average manually driver is not always so skilled. By using the right gear, automatics use less fuel, save money and emit fewer emissions.

These are some of the reasons why it is becoming increasingly difficult to buy a new manual transmission model in many countries. In the US, less than 1% of new models have shift levers (compared to 35% in 1980), according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s really only sports cars, all-terrain SUVs, and a handful of small pickups that still have a clutch.

In Europe, Volkswagen is dropping all its manual transmission vehicles to comply with EU regulations to reduce emissions.

While all gasoline-powered cars and trucks are climate killers, with shifting gears being the slightly worse of two evils, internal combustion automatics themselves are on their way out. Side by side with their fixed-coupling counterparts, they drive along the highway towards the junkyard of history.

Electric vehicles also have gear systems: a single-speed transmission that transfers energy from the engine to the wheels. But because there is only one gear, there is no shifting, either automatic or manual.

For the self-proclaimed shifting connoisseurs, the buzz of the EVs at higher speeds probably annoys them even more than the automatics. But fossil fuels of all kinds are on their way out – due to the climate crisis – and the sooner we get rid of them, the better.

Road transport is responsible for 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Our World Data, and is also a major contributor to air pollution that causes approximately nine million deaths annually from respiratory and lung diseases. Although traffic noise is less deadly, it also contributes to stress and sleep disorders.

Fortunately, there is a convenient way to avoid these pests: electric vehicles.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), sales of electrical appliances tripled last year over the past three years. It added that if the trend continues – which depends on the rollout of charging stations – the EV revolution will save the planet five million barrels of oil per day by 2030.

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Positive studies seem to correspond with the impressions of myself and friends about the ride you make with the EV. It’s quiet and as smooth as crème brulee. “My husband and I actually argue about who gets to drive the electric car to work,” said my friend Cristine in upstate New York. And my brother in San Francisco is in his fourth year of leasing an electric car.

In cities like Oslo, Norway, where new EV sales are the rule rather than the exception, the air is cleaner, there is less noise and overall emissions have also fallen. The electric boost has been so successful that Norway will end sales of gasoline cars by 2025.

But for enthusiasts who really can’t do without a clutch and gear lever, Toyota is planning one realistic feeling fake manual transmission for some EV models.

It serves no purpose – except to comfort bruised egos.

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