When I was learning to drive a few years ago, I bemoaned the complexity of manual transmission and suggested a better way: “As far as I can see, all of this could be done with the vertical part of a joystick or similar, holding it still to maintain the speed, moving it forwards to go faster, and pulling it backwards to slow down (and braking depending on how hard you’re pulling it).”
When I wrote this, I had never tried to drive a car with automatic transmission. However, during our recent holiday in Tuscany, we rented an automatic Lancia Delta Sport, so I got the opportunity to try it.
At first I hated it! It seemed to disengage the engine just as I was trying to go faster for the purpose of changing gear, and in the same way slowing down was interrupted at the wrong time.
With time I got used to it, though, especially after I found the manual override – it allows the driver to select plus to go up a gear and minus to go down one, which is useful to anticipate the gear change.
However, it did show me what the problem of my old suggestion was: If the driver is slowing down, the best gear change depends on what happens a few seconds ahead. For instance, if the driver goes down from 40 to 30 and then back up to 40, it might be best not to change the gear at all, whereas if the change for 40 to 30 is followed by a further deceleration to 20, it would have been better to lower the gear sooner rather than later. The car cannot know this, however, so it will have to err in one of the two situations.
The only way to make a better automatic drive would be for the controls to be different. If for instance cars had a control for target speed and a brake, in the first scenario the driver would leave the target speed at 40 but press the brake to go temporarily down to 30, whereas in the second scenario the driver would alter the target speed to 20 without pressing the brake at all.
Why aren’t the car companies coming up with ideas like these?