Does the Manual Transmission Have a Future?

EVs are giving the third pedal a final push into the history books.

Manual transmission-equipped NA Mazda Miata, yellow, convertible, roadsterManuel Carrillo III | Capital One

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There's a popular automotive narrative that centers on a contest for the soul of the driver: one waged between fans of manual transmissions and those who prefer the promise of an electrified future. In reality, that battle is already over. According to figures provided by IHS Markit, a business data firm, electric cars began outselling manual models in 2019. The following year, EVs doubled manual market share, and by 2021, electrics trounced manuals with five times as many units retailed.

Those numbers reveal an even starker truth: While electric vehicles comprised a mere 3% of total auto sales in the U.S. last year, vehicles equipped with a manual transmission saw their market penetration shrink to a largely irrelevant 0.6%.

In the face of such dour numbers, it’s legitimate to ask whether the manual transmission has a future at all. The answer is split between the few gas-powered segments that seem keen to hold onto the past and a handful of companies willing to import nostalgia into the upcoming crop of EVs.

A Niche Within a Niche

It’s clear that manual transmissions—those with a clutch pedal and a stick shift—are no longer part of the automotive mainstream. So where are shift-it-yourself gearboxes still hanging on?

Today, manual transmissions almost exclusively show up in niches such as affordable, sporty cars (Mazda MX-5 Miata, Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI), muscle cars (Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Camaro), and brawny off-road machines (Jeep Wrangler and Ford Bronco).

What of the high-dollar sports cars from brands like Porsche, Ferrari, or even the Chevrolet Corvette? The Corvette is automatic-only in its most recent generation, while Ferrari dropped traditional manuals for racing-derived, dual-clutch automatic transmissions a decade ago. Porsche still sells a handful of manual transmission models, but they are vastly outsold by their dual-clutch cousins.

Manual transmission-equipped NA Mazda Miata, yellow, convertible, roadsterManuel Carrillo III

Make-Believe Manuals

Compounding the issue is the fact that most electric vehicles go without shifting gears at all—nearly all EVs use a single-speed transmission. With automakers around the world cutting back on development of future internal combustion engines, manual gearboxes have become something of an afterthought for most brands.

There are a few attempts to keep the three-pedal magic alive in the EV universe, however. Toyota recently filed a patent for a system that replicates the feel of a manual transmission, using software to simulate the shifting experience, while Jeep has also designed a manual for use with an electric version of its Wrangler SUV. It's uncertain whether either of these designs will ever make it into showrooms. What’s more promising is the “eRupt” multi-speed transmission introduced in the new Dodge Charger Daytona SRT EV Concept that simulates the interruption of torque commonly associated with shifting in combustion-powered vehicles.

Realistically, though, these efforts amount to affectations, appeals to a bygone era that provide mostly visceral benefits seeking to preserve driving engagement for enthusiasts. In other words, it's yet another niche for manuals to hide from the changes sweeping across the industry—and perhaps the final resting place of what was once the universal design for a vehicle’s transmission.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.