I thought about automotive transmissions the other day while riding my bicycle.
The reason for this sideways thought process was deceptively simple: I recently restored a Sekai 2500 Grandtour road bike I bought new in 1977, complete with a ten-speed drivetrain and simple friction downtube shifters.
For the last couple of decades I’d become used to various styles of index shifting on bicycles (not to mention ever-increasing numbers of gears ad absurdum). Just click the lever or twist the grip and bang—instant up or down-shifts and a perfectly aligned chain. So pervasive and advanced has this technology become that racers and pseudo-racers now use electric shifting, the entire process delivered by a battery-powered servo. Can a fully automatic bicycle transmission be far behind?
I expected it would take a few days to re-acquaint myself with the subtleties of friction shifting: moving the lever just enough to coax the chain into catching the adjacent cog or chainring without jumping past it, then micro-adjusting to ensure a straight chainline—all by feel and ear so as not to take one’s eyes off the road. Instead, I found the instincts came back within hours—along with the sheer simple joy of operating with the bicycle, instead of just operating it. So easily did I re-attune myself to the feel of the shifter and the perfect pitch of a chain in harmony with its gears that I found myself wondering if the whole index-shifting concept was a marketing solution to a problem that never existed.
An ongoing furor in the Porsche community then jumped into my head. The company recently introduced its new GT3—long considered the ultimate driver’s Porsche with its potent naturally aspirated engine, rear-wheel drive, and numerous weight-reduction features. The new GT3, however, is available only with Porsche’s Doppellkuplung (PDK) dual-clutch transmission, which—to the horror of thousands of Porsche purists—has no clutch pedal. The driver can shift “manually” using paddles on the steering wheel, but the rest of the process is enabled by sophisticated servos and computers. The short-form response of Porsche engineers to the howls of outrage was to shrug their shoulders and say, “PDK is three seconds quicker around the Nürburgring.” End of argument as far as a Porsche engineer is concerned—why would anyone deliberately choose a slower car?
Why indeed? A response from a long-time owner summed it up. I’ll paraphrase without quotes: With current technology and some that is just over the horizon, it will shortly be possible to build a car that could drive itself around the Nürburgring faster than its owner ever could. He simply straps in, taps “Nürburgring hot lap” on the nav screen, and wham—the car rips off a 7:05 while he sits with his arms crossed or sends a live iPhone video of his “accomplishment” to his buddies.
Would such a fearsome capability satisfy a sports-car aficionado? Doubtful. Surely, even with PDK it takes an expert driver to exploit a GT3 to the fullest, and Porsche has made its awesome capabilities more accessible with automated shifts measured in microseconds. But the purists correctly point out that in doing so, something of the connection between driver and car—to use my bicycle analogy, operating with the car instead of just operating it—has been lost.
And that brings me to modern four-wheel-drive vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions.
Just a few years ago there were valid arguments to be made for manual transmissions versus automatics in terms of the vehicle’s capability. The most salient advantage of the manual became apparent when descending a very steep incline, when, in first gear/low range, engine braking would allow one to stay off the brake pedal in most circumstances, thus reducing the chances of locking up the rear tires and losing directional stability. The slip inherent in automatic transmissions rendered engine braking much less effective.
That all changed when manufacturers exploited their vehicles’ anti-lock braking sensors to introduce hill-descent control. Now the vehicle’s computer senses speed and wheel slip on a steep descent, and can apply the brakes on individual wheels as needed—something a driver cannot do. I used to think my FJ40—with a long-stroke six that produced loads of engine braking, plus the extra-low first gear in its H41 manual transmission—was adept at descents. But an LR4 or Jeep JK—any number of modern trucks, in fact—with an automatic and hill-descent control is far superior. Add to that the demonstrable superiority of an automatic on low-speed technical terrain or steep ascents (no chance of killing the engine), and the choice between transmissions becomes an easy one (although the manual still holds an edge in fuel economy—for now).
Still, we’re back to our original conundrum. When I negotiate a difficult section of trail in the FJ40, there’s a genuine sense of accomplishment at having done it with a manual transmission and no traction control of any kind. The same section in a Rubicon Unlimited, with an auto box, lockers front and rear, and disconnecting front sway bar, is a doddle. In a 4Runner Trail, with the addition of Crawl Control, which maintains a preset speed, my input is pretty much reduced to . . . steering. Yes, if I don’t steer the right way I can still put the vehicle on its roof (as can that GT3 driver with PDK), but it’s easier to avoid doing so without the need to multitask.
Does this mean I’m against these modern developments? Not a bit of it. For one thing, I’m willing to tackle obstacles in a Rubicon I wouldn’t in the 40. And I never fail to be astonished at the combination of luxury and capability in an LR4.
Nevertheless, I’m happy to have learned my four-wheel-drive skills when knowing how to operate three pedals at once with two feet was necessary—and satisfying. I’m sure many GT3 drivers feel exactly the same way.
Update: My thoughts on bicycle gearing prompted this response from Tom Sheppard, who in between solo jaunts in the Sahara is a keen mountain biker. Fair comment, Tom:
J: Re your nostalgic thoughts on bicycle gear changing, I couldn't have done it your way on my farm-track ride to the gym this morning. I definitely needed both hands on the handle bars. Attached a recent test of the Image Stabilisation on the new lens - on the limit here! I 'd have been happier with two hands here too.