Why the stick shifter might actually survive the electric revolution

Why the stick shifter might actually survive the electric revolution

It was around the middle of the last decade when Alan Macey realized how bad things were with the manual transmission. The clutch pedal had disappeared from American vehicles before it was even born, but suddenly a stick shift wasn’t even available as an option on a muscle car like the Dodge Charger. So in 2015 he founded the Manual Gearbox Preservation Society.

The group is made up of the kind of drivers who believe that physically shifting through gears is just as important to driving as hitting the accelerator or turning the wheel. Macey isn’t so dogmatic – his garage houses both a manual and an automatic – but the longtime car enthusiast and industry veteran is concerned about how automated driving has become.

“I grew up in the rural suburbs of Detroit. I’ve spent a lot of time driving jeeps and smaller cars on these back roads and just having a lot of fun,” said Macey Robb report. “If I had to make one observation about how cars have evolved in my life, it’s that they’ve become less and less interesting.”

Alan Macey knew it was a bad sign when Dodge stopped selling the manual-transmission Charger

Photo: Courtesy of FCA US LLC

Macey has no illusions. He knows the manual transmission won’t see a sudden surge in popularity. In the early 1980s, the proportion of cars that rolled off the assembly line with a stick shift was only 35 percent, they say The New York Times. In 2020, that number was just over one percent (or about 188,000 cars) — which could explain why only 18 percent of the country’s drivers even know how to operate a car. But Macey doesn’t pick out a suit for the manual transmission’s funeral, either. Indeed, the growing popularity of electric vehicles – many of which are sold with promises that they will further automate the driving experience – has given him renewed optimism for the manual transmission.

“I think it was in the ’70s that quartz watches came out,” he said. “And there were probably a lot of people who thought Swiss automatic watches would just be a thing of the past. This even came up with the Apple Watch more recently. But I think we’re all pretty aware that the luxury [mechanical] The watch industry is very lively and dynamic.”

2022 Porsche Taycan GTS

Porsche Taycan GTS Sedan

Porsche

If you know anything about how electric vehicles work, you’re probably thinking that Macey’s hopes are misplaced, largely because one of the main selling points of an all-electric powertrain is that it doesn’t need a multi-speed gearbox to function. Unlike an internal combustion engine, which has a narrow RPM range in which it can operate efficiently—the reason you have to shift through gears to avoid stalling—an electric motor has a much wider optimal range that only requires a single gear needed . For this reason, almost every electric vehicle is equipped with a single-speed direct-drive transmission.

But there are exceptions. Take the Porsche Taycan, for example. Launched in autumn 2019, the German brand’s debut electric vehicle is a true high-performance vehicle, capable of accelerating from zero to 60 mph in 2.6 seconds and reaching a top speed of 261 mph. But what really caught the eye of some enthusiasts is the two-speed gearbox on the rear axle.

The Taycan’s gearbox is an in-house invention, so we don’t know all the intricacies, but we do Wired Article does a good job of breaking things down. Basically, first gear gives the Taycan more access to torque, allowing it to accelerate even faster; Second, allows the motor to spin at a lower speed while maintaining speed, improving efficiency.

Porsche Taycan Turbo S

Porsche Taycan Turbo S

Porsche

The Taycan shifts between the two gears automatically – at around 100 km/h according to Engineering Explained – but the presence of a multi-speed gearbox opens up the possibility that the driver could change gears himself. And while Porsche isn’t yet granting this privilege to its EV drivers, other brands are already open to the possibility.

Over the last year, three different companies have indicated their willingness to put a shift stick in an electric vehicle. During last year’s Monterey Car Week, Gateway Bronco unveiled an all-electric version of its popular Restomod, available with an optional five-speed manual transmission. Then, in February of this year, a Toyota patent came to light that outlined a system for electric vehicles that included a shifter and clutch (albeit a fake). Finally, in April, Jeep unveiled its second Wrangler Magneto concept, mated to a six-speed manual transmission for “ultimate driveline control.”

Gateway Bronco Luxury GT EV

Gateway Bronco Luxury GT EV

Gateway Bronco

There’s only one electric car with a manual transmission these days: Gateway’s Luxe-GT Ford Bronco. The latest addition to the Illinois shop’s Restomod line starts at $265,000 and is indistinguishable from its gas-powered models until you pop the hood. There you’ll find an electric crate motor from Legacy EV pumping out 400 hp and 800 ft lbs of torque. As with most electric vehicles, the 4×4’s torque is immediately available, but if you want even more control over that power, the workshop connects the drive unit to a five-speed manual transmission that sends power to all four wheels.

If you opt for the manual transmission, which costs an additional $11,229, you’ll see two big benefits, according to Gateway founder Seth Burgett. The first is self-explanatory: the feeling of shifting through the gears yourself. The first two gears won’t do you much good (not like you have to worry about stalling), but anyone used to rowing themselves will feel right at home in gears three through five. The second benefit is the added control, especially off-road, which can be difficult with a combustion engine and requires real patience and control by springing the clutch to get the right power and torque. That’s not the case with Gateway’s EV, where turning and propulsion are instantly available with a tap of the foot once the correct gear setting is engaged.

“If you have an electrical device, it’s extraordinarily precise,” Burgett said. “You step on the accelerator until you have the torque and speed you need and then you brake. With an electric SUV, you have much tighter control than with a gas-powered vehicle.”

Inside the Gateway Bronco Luxe GT EV

The Luxe GT EV is available with a five-speed manual gearbox

Gateway Bronco

Burgett isn’t the only one who thinks so. Jeep has brought the battery-powered Wrangler Magneto to the final two installments of its annual Moab Easter Safari. The vehicle is a retrofit that started out as a gas-powered 4×4 but swapped out the old engine for an electric drive unit. One aspect that hasn’t been modified, however, is the six-speed manual gearbox. While by no means necessary, the automaker has seen real benefits from the feature, especially when it comes to off-road use.

“What’s really great is the off-road control and finesse, especially in a really bumpy situation,” said Mark Allen, Jeep’s head of design Robb report. “The vehicle reacts like a manual gearbox, which is a direct drive. I don’t have a torque converter to go over or under. But the beauty of it is that you can’t stall it – and that’s always the fear of driving a manual transmission in a bumpy off-road situation. But it can’t stop because it’s not running.”

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean a manual transmission will make it onto any of Jeep’s production EVs, the first of which is set to debut next year. The automaker views the Wrangler Magneto and the upgraded 2.0 version as “an open door to the lab. . .a test bed, which offers Allen and his team the chance to tinker with a working vehicle with the help of some of the brand’s most die-hard supporters. The battery powered 4×4 will show even the most hardcore enthusiasts that they haven’t been forgotten.

A 3/4 front view of the Jeep Wrangler Magneto 2.0 all-electric concept vehicle

Jeep Wrangler Magneto 2.0 EV Concept

jeep

These enthusiasts — some of whom may be members of the Manual Gearbox Preservation Society — aren’t willing to give up the stick shift. They’re like the music lovers who have stuck with vinyl through the cassette, CD, MP3, and streaming eras because they believe it just sounds better. There’s no reason for Gateway to add a manual gearbox as an option to the Luxe-GT, other than that there are drivers who really want it. As long as that interest persists, no matter the niche, someone will continue to put manual transmissions in cars, SUVs, and trucks — whether they technically need it or not.

“There are certain technologies that just go down in history because they were never really rewarding in the first place,” says Macey, describing the satisfaction of a particularly nice downshift. “Whereas other types of technologies or activities have something about them that goes beyond their functionality.”


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