I really shouldn't have to even be answering this question. This week in Salon David Sirota wrote an article asking "Is it ethical to drive stick?" It's great to see a mainstream, intelligent publication like Salon talking about manual transmissions, except for one thing: the article is inane, and the fundamental question its asking is insipid. And, some of the facts are wrong. And it's whiny and stupid. Okay, five things. Other than that, it's great.
The general premise the article is based on is solid, though. Automatic transmissions are absolutely getting better. Modern automatics are not the three-speed slushboxes of your dad's old Delta 88— they're sophisticated shifting robots with 6 or more gears to play with. They're good. Continuously Variable Transmissions are becoming more popular as well, and are wildly efficient (as well as being one of the biggest Dutch contributions to motoring). So the idea that automatic transmissions are finally getting as fuel-efficient and performance-capable as manuals is absolutely dead-on.
What I have an issue with is how the author uses this information. He asks is it ethical to drive a manual now that automatics are better? How do ethics enter in to this? Does that imply that until now, driving an automatic was unethical?
If the ethical issue is fuel economy (the article seems to be equating ethics and fuel economy, a pretty dodgy supposition) then this guy's ethical standards are pretty strict. In the cars where automatics get better mileage than manuals, we're talking about one or two MPG. So if that's the dividing line between ethical and evil, then you better make sure your tires are inflated properly, Hitler. Driving with some luggage or extra wight in the car? Maybe your engine timing's a bit off? Congratulations, Pol Pot, you're a monster.
Thanks to all this, on the days I don't bike to work and instead fire up my 11-year-old Saturn and shift it into first gear, I no longer feel so righteous or populist. I feel like part of the problem - not just because I'm driving a fossil fuel-dependent vehicle, but also because the manual transmission seems like a silly relic. Likewise, word that manual transmissions may be coming back no longer seems like such great news; it seems like more proof that when it comes to transportation, we're still prone to making shortsighted decisions.
Plus, driving a manual isn't about feeling "righteous or populist." That's why nobody wants to go on road trips with you, David. Jesus, can you imagine? Every shift punctuated by choked-back sobs, you'd catch him staring in the rearview with a foul mixture of disgust and rage, and would it kill him to let you play your road trip mix? Enough with the Tears for Fears already.
Look, if you're going to play the environmental=ethical gambit, you have to look at more than MPGs, anyway. Think about manufacturing. A modern, efficient automatic means more embedded computers, which means more electronics manufacturing, which means more toxic chemicals and e-waste and all that. There's simply more parts to make, and more complex parts.
Really, both MPG and manufacturing of autos and manuals is really about a wash. Posturing it as an ethical issue is a cheesy blogger's trick to drag people into reading what could have been a tedious article. I get it, and we all do a bit of aggrandizing to some degree. Look at my first paragraph. But because we're all guilty of it on some level doesn't mean it shouldn't be pointed out.
Sirota claims to enjoy driving stick, and I believe him. I love it as well. I'm sure that very soon automatics will or already are far better shifters than I'll ever be but that's not the point. He mentions one pro-stick "reason that's substantive, rather than just aesthetic or experiential", and that's helping to maintain driver focus. That's fine, but there's other reasons to drive stick that aren't "aesthetic" or "sentimentalist." Control, for example. Sometimes you, the driver, will want to make your car do certain things when you want to, not because some algorithm computed it's best. Sometimes you want to downshift to take advantage of quick engine braking, or you want to drop into neutral and coast, or you'll hold your shifts to redline, or whatever you want.
If you're doing something more extreme than just comfortable driving, a manual still has great value. The new world record for distance travelled on one tank of fuel did it in a manual Passat for this very reason— they needed more control over what the car is doing to achieve their goal. The point is you have total say of what the entire system of your car is doing, and that's not a bad thing. It's not for everyone, and it doesn't need to be.
Also, there's the value of knowing what's going on in your car. Shifting necessitates a bit of knowledge of how the car works, and anything that helps keep us thinking of cars as wonderful, intricate machines and not magic black boxes is a very good thing. So much of the technology we encounter has been refined to the point where it seems like magic. That's great for marketing, but not great for a curious mind. It's healthy to know how and why things do what they do. It's why I teach kids how to break into and hotwire cars. It's important to me, because I love machines, and think they deserve respect enough not to always be hidden under a glossy skirt.
In an ideal world, that original article would have been Automatics No Longer Suck, Drive Whatever The Hell You Want. Silly concerns over ethics aside, Sirota's book, Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now looks pretty interesting, though.