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The future of cars: are manuals on their way out?

It has long been predicted that manual cars are on their way out. Since 2007, the number of cars with automatic gearboxes bought in the UK has risen by over 70%, with the last three years showing the most significant spike in their demand. But why is it that so many people are abandoning traditional manual transmission?

Undoubtedly, the relative ease of operation that automatics offer makes them increasingly attractive to consumers. They are more convenient, straightforward and, helped by innovative new features, have become extremely popular. Throughout much of automotive history, manual cars were seen as standard, whereas automatics were a luxury usually dismissed due to their expensiveness, unreliability, or lack of availability altogether. However, due to huge technological advances, three pedal driving is now under more pressure than ever, and at present most car models offer both manual and automatic versions.

Modern improvements in automatics include better gas mileage, faster acceleration, advanced driver assistance technology and improved safety systems

Automatic gearboxes simplify driving and are particularly beneficial when driving in traffic or on hilly terrain. Modern improvements in automatics include better gas mileage, faster acceleration, advanced driver assistance technology and improved safety systems, including autonomous emergency braking and adaptive speed control. With automatics subsequently becoming more ‘mainstream’, the argument that manuals are cheaper alternatives is steadily losing weight.

In many countries, manual transmission has already reached its sell-by date. For example, in the USA less than 3% of citizens’ cars are manual, with the majority of people giving ‘stick-shift’ little consideration. USA’s national trend in car preference looks set to continue and, due to the huge influence that the country holds over the rest of the world, many speculate that this will subsequently accelerate the world’s shift to automatics.

Although America is arguably the nation most dramatically siding with automatic cars at present, many experts predict that Europe is already starting to follow suit. Whilst manual gearboxes are still the most popular form of transmission in the UK, their popularity has been steadily declining in recent years, and more people are opting to learn to drive purely automatic cars from the outset.

In 2007 to 2008, there were around 25 manual driving tests for every one taken in an automatic. Now, there are around 10 manual tests for each automatic

In 2007 to 2008, there were around 25 manual driving tests for every one taken in an automatic. Now, there are around 10 manual tests for each automatic and, while automatics may still be far less common than manuals, the gap is rapidly closing. The need to be a versatile driver capable of driving both manuals and automatics is becoming less desirable. Instead, many learners affirm that their priority is simply to get on the road, or that they would prefer to focus on acquiring road sense. Learning in a manual would only complicate this and so they have less desire to do so.

Doug DeMuro, a motor enthusiast whose YouTube channel has nearly 4 million subscribers, explained to ABC News why manuals are becoming an increasingly hard sell to new drivers. DeMuro says: “knowing how to drive a manual was useful when renting a car in Europe… that’s no longer the case.” DeMuro went on to describe how increasing amounts of car hire companies are recognising this demand, as automatics become more widespread. He justified this lack of necessity for manuals by saying: “I try to be a realist. This may be it for manuals. No young person will want a manual when they can have an automatic that’s relatively inexpensive.”

Nevertheless, DeMuro also acknowledged the enjoyment aspect that people miss out on when driving automatic. There will always be ‘die-hard’ drivers who affirm that you are not really driving unless you are driving a ‘stick-shift’. They enjoy the connection they feel with the car, as they have more control and gain an unrivalled satisfaction that automatics simply cannot offer. There is also quite a bit of skill involved in mastering the various shifting techniques which many regard as an enjoyable and desirable challenge.

There is also quite a bit of skill involved in mastering the various shifting techniques which many regard as an enjoyable and desirable challenge

Ivan Drury, senior manager of insights at the automotive company Edmunds, added how manuals offer certain advantages regarding control and road awareness. “You can’t eat a burger or text driving stick – it’s much safer and you’re far more engaged.” In addition, “the odds of having your manual vehicle stolen is slim to none,” implying there are some more obscure benefits of manual transmission.

However, due to the emergence of electric cars, car enthusiasts’ preference for manuals is increasingly under threat. Essentially, electric cars are automatic and, with governments around the world discussing global warming, the ultimate decision to replace petrol cars with electric ones has been agreed on for long-term sustainability. For example, the UK government has declared their aim to phase out petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Currently, electrics only make up a tiny portion of the market, but if they do take off, the very idea of a transmission may become a thing of the past.

Overall, the future of manual gearboxes is evidently under threat now more than ever. It is unsurprising that car manufacturers say that the demand for manual transmissions has ‘fallen off a cliff’ as they are increasingly becoming outdated and inconvenient, clashing with the efficient buzz of the present world. However, experts predict that the near future is unlikely to see the total extinction of manual gearboxes. While manual cars may become an increasingly rare sighting, they will remain a minority favoured by car enthusiasts around the world.

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