Manual Transmissions Are Hideously Expensive Because Of Software

It seems crazy that so many automakers are dropping manual transmissions from their lineups, because stickshifts ought to be so cheap compared to high-tech dual clutch systems. Well, manuals are much more expensive than you think, and software is to blame.


It turns out that manual transmissions themselves may be simple and cheap to manufacture, but they're surprisingly costly to integrate into cars. It's not just a question of cutting a bigger hole in the floor of the car to fit an H-pattern. You have to totally recalibrate a new car's multitude of computer systems to accept a three-pedal gearbox, as car industry insider doodon2whls explains.

Well, I can offer you some insight from my experience fighting for this from the inside of an OEM.

To develop, test, homologate, and certify an MTX [manual transmission - Ed.] variant of a vehicle platform is very costly. Probably more costly than the borderline MTX enthusiast might be willing to pay. It's not just the hardware which can get costly for a well synthesized box - It's the software. Whether we like it or not, software drives modern day cars. Engine, Transmission, and ESP/ABS/TCS systems all run on software. Sure, the base software for the control systems can be carried over, but the calibration for these systems is not trivial by any means, and requires significant man-years of development and several prototype test properties in multiple environments to develop, test, and certify performance and safety.

I knew a seasoned vehicle calibrator in the company, and he showed me a graph with an exponential curve fit through several data points. The X-axis was vehicle model year. The Y-axis was the number of calibration set points required for _just_ the engine calibration. In the 1980's it was up to 10. By the late 1990's it was in the 10,000's and the trend was climbing steeply. This didn't even consider yet the ESP/ABS/TCS systems which have also grown in complexity over the past decade. Add several tens of thousands more calibration points for them.

Most of the auto manufacturers do a 'value added' calculation to assess vehicle program feasibility / profitability. Unfortunately, when you consider the cost of the per-vehicle parts and development/test/homologation/certification amortized over the volume of a low take-rate option like MTX, it doesn't paint a good picture.

I fought long and hard for enthusiast oriented content during my career there, only to find that it was difficult to (believe it or not) get some product planners to appreciate the importance of the enthusiast market since enthusiasts serve as taste makers for the main stream.

So, all of you MTX fan boys and girls out there, keep buying new cars with MTX's. That's the only way to ensure that product planners can justify this kind of content. When the take-rates fall below 5%, it becomes a tough sell.

That's not to say that software is what's preventing carmakers from offering manual transmissions to the public. Take rates are very low here in America, and that's what turns the high costs of developing manual transmission-compliant calibration into too high costs. If everyone went to their dealer and asked for a stickshift, those development costs wouldn't seem so bad, because suddenly there'd be a business case for them.

The point that doodon2whls is making is that the costs of bringing a manual transmission variant of a car are higher than you might think, and software calibration is the cause.

Photo Credit: Motorweek


Bill Caswell

Am I missing something here? Isn't a manual transmission a mechanical part? Why can I take a random manual and hook it to a random engine and drop it into a chassis and it drives just the same as the original manual designed for the chassis? And I can take an engine designed for an automatic, hook it to a manual and it drives just the same as it did with the auto and I'm still using the same computers for the engine that had the automatic?

I could see where ESP/ ABS/ TCS needs to be adjusted slightly to account for the compression of the engine hooked to the wheels thru the manual but you would thing the adjustments would be pretty similar from model to model to model. This seems so much more like corporate bloat and legislative nonsense than anything. Has anyone taken a modern automatic with ESP ABS and TCS and mounted a manual and clutch pedal but left the electronics alone? I bet is almost the same. Of course this is why I am a finance guy with an MBA and work on cars from the 1980's and 90's and not a properly trained engineer with real first hand knowledge but my common sense light says something isn't totally right with this process.