Why I Don’t Drive an Automatic

I’ve taught about a dozen people to drive so far, and it’s not because I’m an adrenaline junkie or a glutton for punishment. It’s because, all things being equal, I prefer the company of people who are competent, empowered, and self-possessed, and there are few things in this world that can undercut those thing as effectively as crappy instruction. And with driving, crappy instruction puts other people’s lives in danger.

For the same reason, I also make it a point to learn something new and extraordinarily difficult every year, if not more often. Being a student keeps the mind fresh, and it’s fun. Through this process, I’ve learned something else that surprises me:

When given the choice between the easy way and the hard way, I almost always chose the hard way, and it’s not just out of bloody-mindedness (though there is a bit of that). It’s that I’ve discovered that when you learn something the easy way, you rarely learn it well.

Take driving. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to learn: automatic or stick.

The automatic transmission removes one of the two most intimidating aspects of driving (the other, which is traffic, can’t be removed) and helps students achieve baseline confidence and competence quicker. There’s less to learn, so what is left can be learned well,and quickly. This is why, in the U.S., the vast majority of student drivers (including nearly all that learn at professional driving schools) learn to drive an automatic.

But bypassing the manual transmission means sacrificing a number of advantages for a trivial gain (lower stress in the first couple days behind the wheel). You sacrifice gas mileage, as sticks are much lighter than automatics, and allow you access to driving tricks that goose your gas mileage without sacrificing emergency performance in traffic.

You also sacrifice control over your car–the manual transmission, even a poor one, offers an extraordinary level of control over the amount of torque delivered to the road surface, and controlling this torque is one of the basic tricks of driving in snow, or performance racing, or escaping from mud, or recovering from a skid. All of this amounts to both a sacrifice of safety and of performance and pleasure. Only the most expensive performance automatic transmissions offer a similar level of control.

Lost too is the ability to drive internationally. Outside the U.S., the automatic transmission is the outlier, while the stick is called a “standard” (because it is standard equipment).

Finally for now (as this list could go on), if you can’t drive a stick you are forever hostage when you find yourself in car-sharing, convoy, or borrowing situations. If you know how to drive a stick and how to handle a large vehicle, you can drive almost any non-specialty vehicle on the planet, in almost any situation (lorries with trailers, and loaders being the exceptions: both require specialized training because of their unusual weight distribution).

Those are a LOT of advantages to sacrifice on the altar of avoiding a couple day’s anxiety, particularly because of another quirk of human nature: most people are okay with “good enough” when it comes to their skill sets. When presented with an opportunity to re-learn a skill at a higher level of complexity, most people will pass on it unless there’s a significant incentive, even if it’s a skill they use every day. Mastery is not enough of a lure for most people, most of the time.

I’m no exception to this one, either. Every time I’ve learned something the easy way, I’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming when it came time to level-up.

So I’ve gradually learned that whenever it’s time for me to learn a new skill, I must select the road that will give me the broadest, deepest possible grounding as quickly as possible. It’s policy. As most of you reading this blog also pursue your own artistic and/or business endeavors, it’s a policy I recommend to you too.

Because to do something for a lifetime, be it hobby or career, it is essential that you do it as if you intend to master it. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.

Of course, I could be totally out to lunch. What do you think? Leave a comment, let’s get a conversation going.

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13 Comments

  1. My, did this bring back some memories. I had to learn to drive on my mom’s 1973 VW bus, a car that was almost as old as I was, and it was definitely a stick. Learning to drive that on the tiny back roads where I live was quite the education. But then I was set when I went into the Army Reserves and had to handle large vehicles, some of which did still have a stick shift.

    A friend of mine who’s a police officer will never buy a car that doesn’t have a stick shift. He says it’s the best anti-theft device you can get for a car.

  2. Both great points!

    I’ve owned two automatics in my life. In both cases, I was essentially paid to take the vehicle. Even though I was a professional delivery driver for a time, and have been trained in precision driving, I’ve never been (and probably never will be) fully comfortable in an automatic, if for no other reason than my clutch has saved my life in adverse driving conditions and the stupidity of other drivers on no fewer than four occasions, so far.

    Weirdly enough, this post actually came out of my experience working on paperback layout today. There was a protracted debate in the studio over whether we should use the prefab templates or build our own to spec, and the decision came down to the production schedule: the prefabs would get the first products through faster, but at the expense of a longer production schedule with a series of how-to books the studio is putting out next year, which have very non-trivial layout needs.

    After opting for the more difficult option, it took an extra four hours to get the system up. That’s it. Now we have the infrastructure and the personnel to do the more complicated layout on the next series, and there will be no time lost to re-training next quarter. The deciding argument in the debate? When my partner reminded me of my stick-shift only policy when teaching people to drive.

    Thanks for joining in, Helen. It’s always great to have your comments!
    -Dan

  3. I’m with you on this one Dan. If you learn to drive a stick first (which I did) you can always drive an automatic later. The reverse isn’t true.

    While driving a stick has never saved my life per se and we now own only automatics (do they offer mini-vans with manuals?) there will come a day when I will own a manual again if for no other reason than the economic ones.

    So what will you be learning in the new year?

  4. I learned to drive on an Automatic for a very simple reasons, it was the only one available to learn on. Sure my folks each drove standard but as my mom was working and not teaching me to drive and my father’s van was a 12 passenger and older then I was, I opted for the run down Mercury Monarch, which we soon discovered no longer had working lights or turn signals, or horn and I think there was a hole in the floor too.

    With the use of hand signals I started learning, till the day my father came home with another automatic that was just two years younger then me, an 81 Buick Century, and then told me I owed a friend of the family a grand as this was my learning car.

    I learned, lost the car till I got my actual license as one of my siblings needed it upstate and then drove it for the first two years of college. I had been given all of two lessons on stick, one from another sister in a parking lot and one from my now sister in law in a blizzard so we could make her honda do donuts. In total my stick driving time was under 20 minute

    When I was late for work and my century wouldn’t start I grabbed my sleeping sister’s escort keys and by the time I was half way to work (a ten minute drive) I knew how to drive stick.

    While it would have been nice to learn the hard way, it can be learned after. I agree though, it is needed, people who can’t drive stick have less survival skills and better make sure those who are driving them on a manual car stay healthy 🙂

  5. Scott –
    In the new year? If all goes to plan, I’ll be learning a lot more about the marketing end of my business, including some very underexploited venues. Gonna be exciting 🙂

    Nuchtchas–
    That kind of can-do spirit warms the cockles of my cynical, shriveled black heart. Love it!
    -Dan

  6. Jeremy from Winnipeg

    I don’t put automatics down too hard especially if as you say get a quality one. I do drive middle capacity dump trucks at work and have an intamate knowlege of manual transmission additionally I live in Winnipeg the coldest major city in the world and naturally am an experienced winter driver. My feelings on manual transmission is this. I actually dislike driving car with manual for one very specific reason, clutching for every damned shift. Driving truck you only clutch to take off and downshift/stop you have to shift at the right moment, but your left leg is ever thankful. However most cars have stick shift for dummies also known as synchronizers . These allow you to shift at less optimal times without burning the clutch, but I hate them. As far as I am concerned they are as bad as automatic transmissions deminished

  7. Jeremy from Winnipeg

    Woops stupid iPod touch

    As I was saying…..deminished control.

    As for emergency situations I do admit engine braking is one other tool in your arsenal. however high end transmissions such as the five speed automatic in my Rav4 do allow you to shift to all gears 1-4 and disengage overdrive(5). not in the same way as manual you can’t say take off in second but you can engine brake and it’s no more difficult to achieve than with manual. Lastly for removing ones self from mud or finding better traction in snow. I’ll take limited slip diffarental over manual any day. Yes you can find limited slip with manual especially in RWD vehicles, which are useless in the snow. otherwise your looking at AWD, which I insist on owning after driving my first one. And yes it burns more fuel but where I live control on the road is worth it. Also manual+AWD=temperamental shifting I’ll take the automatic+AWD.

    As for instructing new drivers even better then forcing manual, put ’em in a big vehicle if it’s a stick even better you can’t apreciate your vehicles position on the road in a small car

  8. Jeremy —

    I actually learned to drive in snow with a posi+RWD+manual — it’s quite an art form, and FWD does make a big difference (and AWD is a dream for snow and mud, no argument).

    Thanks for the intelligent disagreement on driving experience, though. I personally don’t mind clutching in every gear, though I do make it a point to learn the sweet spots in the syncromesh so I don’t have to clutch when it’s not necessary. On one point, though, you and I definitely agree: A big vehicle (like a van or a full-size pickup or a bread truck) with a stick is the ideal training vehicle, particularly in learning basic road safety. Of course, when you get into performance driving training situations, you really do want something with a nice low profile and preferably a tight gearbox.

    Thanks for stopping by!
    -Dan

  9. I can’t drive stick. The analogous experience I have is learning assembly language after C, C++ and Java—I hated it taking four times as long to do simple things, and I found it hard to care about the increase in precision or speed of the assembled code because of that. The lesson there, if it isn’t “DDog should complain less,” is that I should have learned assembly first so when I did get to C I would be amazed that I could write code so much faster and would be better placed to truly consider the tradeoffs in execution. But maybe that’s just me; you should have seen my face when I started learning C++ and discovered these things called objects that are like variables only they can do things to themselves(!!). (Yes, I acquired more nuance after that.) Now my school starts with Java like everyone else does instead of C.

    Since I can only drive automatic sedans, my versatility is extremely limited as you say, and it’s probably about time I learned to drive larger vehicles and stick.

  10. Ddog-

    Great parallel!
    I recommend learning to drive sticks and bigger vehicles–not only does it up your versatility, it actually makes you a better and safer driver in your sedan, and does wonders in reducing anxiety behind the wheel. And, I promise, they’re not as scary as they seem at first. Totally worth it.
    Thanks!
    -Dan

  11. Dan,

    I learned to drive an automatic first. Both at school and from my parents. After my folks got divorced my mom got the car with a manual transmission and I learned to drive that. In the snow. 🙂 That was a fun learning experience! Donuts and jerk starts. The whole nine yards. But I learned.

    Later on I got a job working for a landscaping company. That’s when I learned to drive a big truck with a manual. It’s amazing how much sooner you start to stop when you’re driving a stake truck with a F250 sized engine in it.

    Hauling under load makes you very aware of how much room you need to give and makes you cuss at every idiot who doesn’t give you enough space between you and them. Never would I consider cut off a bus. They can’t stop for shit and I’m totally amazed at how many idiots they DON’T clobber.

    I can’t do the upper/lower gearing on each shift on the big trucks though. I never got a chance to learn it well enough to get good at it which I regret.

    These days I drive an automatic mostly because when I needed a new car thats what was available. I don’t really miss my manual but wouldn’t mind having one again.

  12. Hi Dan,
    I learned to drive at the age of 13 (I was a tall kid) in a farm paddock in an old ’53 Dodge flatbed truck that:
    1) had to be jump started
    2) no synchromesh on the gears (at least it didnt seem like it)
    3) had no power steering
    By the time I hit the road I was accomplished with a manual (stick) transmission. Growing up in Australia we drive on the LHS of the road (RHS of the car). A few months ago I went to Europe for the first time and in addition to coping with driving on the other side of the road I had to re-map my brain to using the gear stick with the other arm. At the age of 39 it was a weird experience to sort of be like a student all over again, coping with all the aspects of lateral inversion – feeling of the car, controls, reading traffic etc.

    Americans coming to countries that drive on the other side UK, New Zealand, Australia etc need to be prepared for Rental cars with manual transmissions and a whole lot of mental re-mapping. A first timer in a manual and on the other side of the road would be a dangerous combination.
    Cheers,
    Guvnor

  13. Well said, Guv!

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