Technology

Why safety technology could spell the end of manual transmissions

A decade ago, manuals represented up to one quarter of Subaru Canada’s annual sales volume, said Anton Pawczuk, a spokesman for product management. By 2019, it was less than 10 per cent.

Subaru’s EyeSight smart safety system is not available on any manual-equipped model. One reason is those models, unlike those with automatic transmissions, lack an electronic brake, which is used to keep the car from creeping in an emergency stop.

The decision not to adapt EyeSight to manual models was economic, Pawczuk said.

“If it’s only 10 per cent of your sales and dropping, then your choices are either to improve EyeSight as a technology and make it better for the vast majority of vehicles that have it, or try to create something for the manual,” he said.

SOME STICK BY MANUAL

Mazda, by contrast, equips stickshift cars with its Smart City Brake Support system.

“We don’t want to penalize the drivers who want to choose a manual transmission,” said Chuck Reimer, manager of product communications at Mazda Canada.

Stalling the vehicle if the driver forgets to depress the clutch pedal is an acceptable trade-off, he said.

Likewise, Mazda’s radar cruise control operates with a manual gearbox, Reimer said. The driver still has to change gears if the speed goes below or above the engine’s comfortable rev range, but the system will remain engaged.

Toyota Canada Vice-President Stephen Beatty said the company has a two-pronged approach. All models developed in-house have Toyota’s Safety Sense system as standard equipment, but it is modified to work with manual-equipped vehicles.

“We’ve tried to democratize safety systems throughout our lineup,” Beatty said.

For jointly developed products, it depends on the partner’s approach. For example, a manual Toyota Yaris subcompact, which shares a platform with the Mazda2, gets AEB. But on the Toyota 86, built alongside the Subaru BRZ, it’s unavailable.

Subaru remains committed to offering manual-equipped vehicles, Pawczuk said, but regulation would force it to decide whether to invest in adapting its AEB for use with manuals.

“If it becomes mandated one day, then we’ll have to take a look at it,” he said.

Growth in hybrid-vehicle sales is also a factor, said Jörg Trampler, director of electrified powertrain technology at ZF’s North American engineering centre in Livonia, Mich. Adding manual shifting to a hybrid drivetrain requires additional technology, such as an electronic clutch, to ensure seamless switching between internal combustion and electric power. “All of a sudden,” Trampler said, “things become really expensive.”

WORLDWIDE COMPARISON

The five-peed manual gearbox remains the most popular choice worldwide, according to the global research firm IHS Markit. But automatic transmissions dominate in Canada and the United States and are gaining popularity in Asia and Europe.

Product evolution has closed the fuel-economy and cost gap between automatic and manual transmissions, removing prime reasons for choosing three pedals over two. Drivers who prize sportiness and control over convenience make up most of the manual market now.

Statistics from IHS Markit and ZF Group, a global Tier 1 auto- motive supplier, show the global market for manual transmissions is down to 17.1 per cent and is 1.2 per cent for North America. IHS found that sales of electric vehicles eclipsed those of stick-shift vehicles in the United States last year.

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