-The Drive-A recent discussion on Bimmerfest centered around the future of the manual transmission. I thought I would add my input to the discussion, and here is a slightly modified version of what I posted.

Honestly, the future of manual transmissions is far from assured, even in enthusiast vehicles like the BMW’s. Basically, it comes down to the fact that it’s getting harder and harder to engineer a clutch that’ll hold up to the load a modern engine will put on it while still being reasonably easy to actuate with ones foot.

Yes, you can up the amount of hydraulic assist… but at what point do you kill pedal feel with the amount of assist being provided? We’ve already seen that happen with brakes; brake feel is almost non existent in most modern cars because so much assist is required to bring modern heavy cars to an halt. Try driving an old Miata for a couple of days and see what I mean.

We’re hitting the same problem with clutches; so far we’ve had a decent feel for what the clutch is doing merely by the feel of the pedal under our feet… but much more assist than we’re already providing in modern cars and we lose feel, but as engines become more powerful it becomes harder and harder to actuate a clutch because the clutch itself must be much heavier in order to deal with the loads. It’s a balancing act, and one that can’t go on forever unless a significant advance is made in materials technology for clutches in the next couple of years. Unfortunately, this kind of advance is unlikely, but no-one would like to see it more than I.

So the fix? Dual Clutch Transmission and its ilk. Computer operated clutches can be as heavy as you like because there’s no pedal. The driving experience feels a lot like an expertly operated manual because that’s exactly what it is… but the expert is silicon. Automatics with modern torque converters can handle FAR more powerful engines than a manual. DCT’s can handle similar loads because they don’t care about pedal feel, only changing gears. The clutch can be incredibly heavy duty and no-one cares because it’s all “assist” with no manual intervention required.

In the future, we might see “manuals” on high performance cars, but I suspect they’re going to be “clutch by wire” systems with simulated pedal feel… if the manufacturers even both with that much. A single-clutch system similar to the old and rightfully maligned SMG might be the future of manual transmissions; with a pedal that’s not actually attached to anything except sensors, and a clutch on hydraulic servos. Feedback could be provided by similar servos, but it wouldn’t be the same. Real driving experts will feel the difference, and that’s an awful lot of engineering for a very small driver base. Like it or not, the USA and its love of the automobile means we are just about the largest market for BMW, Mercedes, Audi, VW etc. and our desires tend to drive what gets funded in engineering.

Real manuals will still exist, but they’ll be relegated to the lower end cars with less power. The economy versions of the 3-series and 1-series. However, these are traditionally the same models BMW has refused to sell in the USA because it impacts their cachet as a luxury car maker. Catch 22. If you want a real manual in a BMW, you’d better not live in America. The land of the free, indeed.

I myself decry this change because I love manuals. One of the reasons I purchased my 330i in the first place is that I set myself a goal to buy a car with at least 6 cylinders and a manual transmission; requirements that cut my scope down effectively to maybe half a dozen models of car around the same price range. The final decision was easy because I always wanted a BMW, but it surprised me how much that one requirement limited my buying scope. My next car will also be a stick, but will it be the last stick I will ever buy? Possible. By the time I’ve worn out my next car, it’s possible that there may be no more cars in the USA sold new with a stick. At least at the top end of the market. I might still be able to buy a Japanese econo-box with a stick, but where’s the fun in that? Oh, unless it’s an MX-5 or its successors.