Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Let "Otto" do it...

I am not a car person. No thrill attends their purchase or use. In fact, my current ride - a Pontiac Vibe - pretty well describes the driver, I think. Utilitarian, mildly efficient, totally not "hot".

I appreciate the engineering and design of vehicles which make driving a less challenging task, such as the automatic transmission. In fact, after buying one IH 1800 Tandem grain truck with an Allison, I refit my next grain truck with one. I know my mileage is less (albeit hard to tell in a grain truck), and braking must be done more thoughtfully without the ability to downshift, but the clutch doesn't wear out, anybody can learn to drive it in a day, and the transmissions have been bulletproof.

Driving manual transmissions is reliable humor premise here in the US - and a point of mild derision overseas. Still there are many whose X [correction I mean "Y"] -chromosome contains a gene for stick shifts.

It is unclear, at this point, which if any of these alternative technologies will gain more than a foothold in the market, and what their overall effect will be on the way Americans drive. One can imagine technologies such as the continuously variable transmission accelerating the eclipse of the stick shift, by maximizing driver ease while allowing greater efficiency than traditional automatics. Or, perhaps technologies like the dual-clutch transmission will spark new awareness of the benefits of active driver involvement in the subtleties of the car's performance. While I personally hope for the latter, I recognize that no one-size-fits-all solution is appropriate for the diverse situations and skill sets of American drivers.

Moreover, there is a broader question that the evolution of automobile transmissions raises about technology. Much science fiction and social commentary has evoked the idea that technology will make people passive and dependent, for example in a Star Trek episode where aliens have ceased to control or understand the machines their ancestors built. But the real history of technology shows a countervailing trend; people often prefer a hands-on approach, in areas ranging from blogging to amateur astronomy to home improvement. For some people, control and performance will remain priorities in choosing their cars, and for this reason I suspect the stick shift is not going to disappear anytime soon. [More]

It may be that the type of skill represented by the eye-hand-foot coordination required to drive a stick shift with panache is fading from our world to be replaced with eye-brain-finger coordination needed to build websites effortlessly, or program an RTK guidance machine, or set an insulin pump.

Different ages demand different skills. Few need to be able to drive a four-in-hand hitch anymore, for example. Which skills become the most admired and associated with coolness has always been a mystery, but one thing does seem clear.

The ability to find people as fascinated as you in some narrow field of expertise, to build a community, and to propagate the skill or art involved has never been as available as it is right now.

Who knows what stupendous things people will accomplish as more of us have a chance to find and exploit our intrinsic talents? Even if it's simply driving a stick.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can be freed from tasks we find awkward to pursue those arcane activities or studies. This is the gift of technology: time.

For cryin' out loud, don't give it away to the TV.

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