A spectre is haunting the automotive universe - it is the spectre of the paddle-shifted gearbox. All the powers of the industry have entered into an alliance to bring the downfall of the traditional manual transmission. It is our duty, as drivers, to halt the destruction of true driving enjoyment and to rise against this behemoth.
As a young enthusiast I was raised with the belief that proper driving was defined by the harmony between man and machine. I understood that a car's behaviour on the road or track was a direct extension of either professionalism or buffoonery behind the wheel. Yet recently this line has been blurred. Launch control, traction control, stability control, and paddle-operated gearboxes have allowed these very same buffoons to mimic the professionals. Some, likely the ones doing the mimicking, would argue this is a good thing. However, I would make the argument that driving, like any other skill in life, is something one should nurture before relishing in the pleasure that comes from nearing perfection. While the recent evolution of sports cars has lead to some seriously impressive technology, I believe a fundamental aspect of driving enjoyment is vanishing. We are losing the joy of automotive tactility. The traditional driver's of the world must unite and tear down the proponents of this revolution!
One of the main arguments I often hear in favour of new automotive technology, particularly paddle-operated gearboxes, is that it has made cars much faster than they otherwise would have been. Without a doubt this is entirely true. I'm not sure what sorcery a driver would need to summon to execute a gear shift in 50 milliseconds with a traditional manual but I'm certain I do not possess such powers. Tire technology and launch control have massively helped marketing departments and publications alike make us '0-60' obsessed by lowering this sprint to remarkable levels. Additionally, the alphabet soup of electronic driver aids has further assisted in the ascent of speed. Yet while performance is key, I believe we may be sacrificing too much for it.
For most driving enthusiasts, favouring the rise of technology for the purpose of speed alone is a ridiculous argument for a fairly simple reason: there is intrinsic enjoyment in having tactile control over a car's behaviour regardless of whether it produces the fastest result. In other words, rowing a gearbox is super fun but not necessarily super fast. There must be moments when having the fastest possible gear change is necessary but I have never encountered such a moment. And unless a lap of Sarthe is part of your daily commute I think you might agree. It's just a simple fact that supersonic velocity is not desired during the vast majority of driving situations so should we not obtain our driving pleasure by other means? Indulging in that beautifully rev-matched downshift a few moments before clipping the apex of one's own driveway at 10 kph is a pleasure we can all relate to on a daily basis. But the advocates of this revolution say something else. They tell us that if we simply shun our core driving traditions that we can join the master class of professional drivers.
Every shift is perfectly rev-matched, you'll never miss another gear, you can keep both hands on the wheel and focus your energy on manhandling the surrounding beast. This is the propaganda we have been fed in recent years. We drivers must unite in our opposition to these ideas. Much like the speed argument these all happen to be true but our inner driver has once again been led astray. The prospect of failure is the element that makes mastery possible in the first place. Without it perfection becomes commonplace and hobbies become mundane. There is little to strive for. The possibility of a missed shift resulting in a destroyed engine or a missed braking point that sends me careening to a fiery death is something I desire. Mastery is difficult and this is what makes the pursuit of it so worthwhile. There is a satisfaction that comes from knowing the behaviour of a car and skillfully exploiting it. Because of this, diminishing the risk factor and learning curve of driving dilutes the entire experience.
Yet I strongly believe in the need to put this technological revolution into perspective. Only a fool would call for the end of progression to maintain the status quo, even when it comes to something like driving. There are certain examples of automotive exotica that need to push our technological limits. For instance, if the LaFerrari was unveiled with a 6-speed between the seats I would question the sanity of the engineering department (after the naming department of course). Cars like the LaFerrari are built for the purpose of reaching the performance stratosphere and producing numbers like 0-300 kph in 15 seconds. This is a positively mind-bending figure which is largely possible due to the very technology I'm berating. But this is the purpose served by these cars. They are marvels of engineering innovation and are the automotive flagships of a generation. It is a mistake to assume that all sports cars must now follow this trend which, predictably, but inevitably, focuses the cross hairs on Porsche.
When the average Porsche enthusiast discovered that the latest iteration of the GT3 will not be offered with a manual it was like a Teutonic blow to the gut. We incorrectly assumed we had an understanding with our German brothers. The purpose of a car like the 911 is to be a fully involving, engrossing, engaging experience. It is about the feel of the steering, the hum of the engine through the seat, that perfect brake feel, and the precision of a gear change and so much less about posting record lap times or being a technological benchmark. I feel this exemplifies the exact argument I am making. Classically analog cars like the 911 have now begun to follow the trend of the technological elite and are playing in an arena that has been deserted by the driving purist. Ditching the manual for PDK (not to mention the Metzger engine and now long gone hydraulic steering) has left traditional drivers wondering if we may have reached a tipping point in the battle of digital vs. analog. I wonder if we might live in a world with both.
I personally prefer human interaction to Facebook sharing, a classic dice roll to PS3 button mashing, and until recently, the turn of a page to the swipe of a finger. There is boundless value in modern digitization but in a world where the next big thing is the only thing I wonder if we are carelessly dismissing our analog past. For drivers, that click-clack of a 2-3 shift on a winding on-ramp is like the crack of a baseball off a hitters bat, intrinsically it cannot be replaced by a high-efficiency digital solution. While I have the greatest respect for technological progression some experiences simply cannot be replaced. I call for driving purists to unite against this revolution and to preserve the glory of the manual, but perhaps a more elegant solution may be for all car enthusiasts to unite and see the value of each.
Follow Michael Stone to the intersection of cars and philosophy on Twitter @mistastone
Check out the portfolio of Aaron Lane, graphic and comic artist, and the illustrator of this amazing artwork @ www.coroflot.com/Knightrain