The campaign for real steering wheels
The stick shift is dead, and not a moment too soon. Three pedals for two feet? Take your hand off the wheel to swizzle-stick a knob around for the purpose of going faster, slower, or backwards? Manual transmissions were nothing less than lethal, responsible for millions of fender benders, hundreds of thousands of accidents, and countless killed or seriously injured. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
If you haven’t accepted reality already, it’s time to face it: the manual transmission has joined the typewriter and rotary phone in The Museum of No Seriously, They Used That Thing?
I know, you love “rowing the boat.” A manual tranny is more Zen than some guy dragging his pre-teen kid across the country on a 23-horsepower motorcycle. It’s the automotive equivalent of Chevy Chase’s advice to “be the ball.” Good for you! Just keep in mind that you’re probably not intellectually challenged, uncoordinated, and prone to eating sloppy meals while driving—but the vast majority of humans on the planet with access to a motor vehicle is all that and a bag of chips (that they just dropped under the brake pedal).
Don’t get me wrong, the disappearing stick shift is a bit of a bummer. The average driver may not have done a Vulcan mind meld with their manual tranny (sounds bad, feels good), but swapping gears by hand was the mass market’s last visceral connection with something purely mechanical.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to remember the good old days, when cars broke down more often than the marriage-minded contestants on The Bachelor, and people knew how to fix them. The cars, I mean. You can’t fix meretricious. Or write that word without a spell-checker. No time for that right now. Sherman! Set the Way-Back Machine for 1944!
In the second half of The War to End All Wars (For About Three Years), German tanks were better than American tanks in at least one important way: their Ali-like ability to take a punch. But when a Tiger’s Maybach HL 230 P30 power plant called halt to the proceedings, which happened fairly often—thank you, Ferdinand Porsche—a large team of dedicated mechanics and maintenance workers would rush to get the Nazi war machine back in action. Often without success. You see, the average Schützengrabenvernichtungspanzerkraftwagenmensch was mechanically clueless; they’d never owned a car.
When the Sherman tank’s Ford V-8 stopped working, American soldiers drew on their experience tinkering with crappy American automobiles. They grabbed a wrench and fixed the damn thing, Spare parts? Plenty! Making them fit was easy enough for soldiers who grew up changing oil, fixing flats, and swearing at the fruits of Detroit’s addiction to aesthetics over mechanics.
Tanks for the memories. Things are different now. Here in the computer age, semiconductors conduct everything but opening and closing doors. Unless, of course, you have a Rolls-Royce, in which case they do that as well. Today’s shade-tree mechanics are a dying breed of “get off my lawn” types relegated to fixing and modifying cars older than Madonna. You remember her, right? Kind of?
You don’t need me to tell you that modern automobiles are hermetically sealed four-wheeled Cuisinarts: smooth and seamless carcoons isolating drivers from any sense of mechanical tactility. A trend that reaches its current peak (so to speak) with the Tesla Model S, a plug-and-play product featuring software controls remotely updated by Elon Musk’s code monkeys.
In terms of operation, present-day cars owe more to the Sony Playstation than Henry Ford’s cheap and cheerful Model T. Which brings us to the steering wheel…
Back in the day, steering wheels were, in fact, simply wheels. Then came the horn. Then airbags. Now? Steering wheels are command centers lousy with buttons, knobs, and scrolling wheels. They put a Baobab tree’s worth of programs and subroutines at the driver’s fingertips.
Reposition a digit and choose your music. Raise the volume. Adjust the suspension. Change gears. Check your average speed, mileage, distance to destination, or service interval. Summon Siri or Cortana to make a call or send a text. The steering wheel’s “workload” has grown to the point where Mercedes and Audi feel obliged to equip their helms with not one, but two, multi-purpose scrolling knobs.
BMW’s M Performance’s steering wheel is the sina qua non of tiller TMI. The “upgrade” has a digital display implanted inside the top of the circle. Begin by clicking on an itty bitty icon: a race flag, alarm clock, toothed gear, or the Greek letter for “press this when you don’t know what else to press.”
You can then access a lap and split timer, average speed and fuel consumption calculator, engine oil and water temperature readout, G-force recorder (that holds the number until the steering wheel is straight), or a “dynamics index” (to see if you’ve met set goals re: average speed and fuel consumption).
But wait! There’s more!
You also get a quarter-mile timer with a “Christmas tree” countdown via the steering wheel’s LED’s. Red, red, red, red, green! Flashing red lights announce the arrival of the rev limiter. When you’ve finished, the Bimmer’s wheel blinks a multi-color celebration, altering you that: A) This German engine didn’t call a halt to the proceedings, and B) It’s time to check your results and delete your top speed (lest local enforcement take an interest). Don’t ask me how.
According to an explanatory video [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFLvCsHBjBI], the Alcantara-wrapped M Performance steering wheel “increases efficiency in city traffic.” Wait. What? What part of the above list qualifies as “increased in-town efficiency?” Not to rain on the elephant-free electronic circus, but how safe is it to control everything but an on-board coffee maker from the steering wheel?
In 2018, 3177 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. Attorney Joel Feldman’s daughter Casey was one of them. Needless to say, the President and Founder of distracteddriving.org is no fan of multi-function steering wheels.
“Adding buttons extraneous to the task of driving doesn’t make sense,” he told me. “We need to reject the premise that we need to stay connected and multi-task while we’re driving.”
William Horrey, Traffic Research Group Leader for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, reckons even thinking about which button to push on your wheel—never mind taking a deep dive into sub-menus—is a dangerous habit. He’d like to see manufacturers build systems that lock out features that require too much mental processing power.
That ain’t gonna happen. Nor should we expect Uncle Sam to wield the ban hammer. The NHTSA gives manufacturers guidelines on infotainment system safety, and that’s it. So the onus is on drivers to resist the urge to use their steering wheel to get a stock quote or text little Johnny that they’re going to be 20 minutes late picking him up from school. Either that or buy a McLaren, which has a blessed absence of any steering-wheel-mounted distraction, save for the need to keep the thing straight at Mach 3.2. So fast that the operation of any possible manual-transmission (were such an anachronism to be fitted) would appear from a distance to be the frantic swizzle-sticking of a Tiger tank driver with a newly retired engine. Achtung, baby!