There is an inevitable resistance to change as new ideas in the automotive industry gain traction and move on to become accepted norms. Our generation is experiencing somewhat of a paradigm shift in auto technology; it comes through the ever-increasing use of complex electrical systems replacing the wonderful bits of mechanical engineering we’ve come to know and love. Go stroke your manual steering rack and your clutch pedal, they’ll be a figment of your fading memories soon.
Face it, this computer is just better at working the gearbox than you are
Let’s look at Porsche’s PDK, as they shocked some of us with the announcement of no longer offering a true manual gearbox in the 991 GT3. What’s significant about their implementation?
The PDK is described by Porsche as essentially being two gearboxes in a single case. Each ‘box’ has its own input shaft and clutch, and each is responsible for controlling alternating gears. Engaging 1st at a stoplight selects the gear but keeps both clutches disengaged. As you apply throttle, the transmission computer determines how quickly (or smoothly) to engage the clutch and you’re on your way. The second box, meanwhile, has already slipped into 2nd gear and awaits the computer’s command to disengage one clutch while engaging the other. Pat yourself on the back, “you” made the 1-2 shift.
What’s still there? Well, the engine’s physical attachment to the rear wheels remains. The clutches form a direct connection from the mill to the pavement; there is no damping between the GO pedal and your immediate acceleration.
What’s lost? You no longer have any direct manual control of that physical connection. While you still make the decision with how much urgency to accelerate, the computer decides how best to deliver an appropriate response in regards to the clutch. It also takes an educated guess as to what your next gear might be and engages it in the second box, before you’d ever even move your hand in the direction of the next gear’s gate. C’est la vie.
This computer is just better at steering than you are
Another large shift in the industry comes in right between your front wheels. Old-timers whined about power steering replacing heavy manual racks, and now we get to whine about electric racks replacing our lovable hydraulic friends. These are everywhere now; pick-up trucks, grocery-getters, luxury cars, and high end sports cars. Dare I mention Porsche again?
Hydraulic power steering took time to gain traction with gearheads and enthusiasts. Engineers had to figure out how to replicate the physical feedback into a steering wheel while its actual connection to the wheels was effectively dampened by oil. This kind of power steering was commercially used for decades before it caught up with sports cars. Porsche wasn’t the only company taking their time to work the technology into their cars, the 911 didn't get hydraulic steering until 1989. And those posters you had of 288 GTOs, F40s, and Countaches? All of ‘em had manual steering racks. The common tagline amongst those switching to electric assist now is fuel consumption. There’s apparently no need to power a hydraulic pump when all you’re doing is driving down a straight road 90% of the time. Exit pump, enter computer.
What’s still there? Your wheel is still directly attached to a mechanical rack. Some may even argue that this connection is truer than it was with hydraulic steering, where a bunch of oil muddled the experience; but that’s what we’re used to!
What’s lost? The muddy oil link. It might seem contrary, but the hydraulic pump always being engaged was responsible for some immediacy to the steering. If you’ve driven a manual rack lately you’ll know this immediacy was still no match for ol’ faithful, but it was close. 50 years of engineering close. The oil effectively absorbed all the unwanted and sudden interferences the road surface would throw at your hands, without disconnecting you entirely. Engineers have now taught a computer to accomplish this task, but it involves an electric motor. What does that mean? There’s a second brain between yours and your front wheels. It’s fast and it knows what to do, but the kind of feedback it transmits back to the driver is fundamentally different. It's not governed by fluid dynamics and a mechanical link, but rather by lines of code. The good news is that computers are smarter than you, so if you wanna go faster, they’ll get you there.
This computer will out-accelerate and out-brake your comatose body
Overall dynamic control of a car is increasingly being given to computers, and part of the package is electronic throttle and brake control. Having an actual physical link between your body and your throttle or brake is of a bygone era. The minute and incredibly precise controls applied to these systems by a computer are so far out of the realm of your right foot, you’re playing mini-putt while electronics are running the Raven’s offensive line.
Electronic throttle control is now a standard in the sports car segment. The car’s ECU controls actuators which directly manipulate the throttle valve. Your brain may tell the right foot to floor it, but the computer’s agenda is application through reasonable force. Unless explicitly told otherwise, you’ll be given the amount of throttle that the tires can handle, and not much more. Brakes are being handled in a similar fashion, although in the interest of safety your right foot still has a mostly direct link to the binders. The difference again lies in fine dynamic control of the vehicle. McLaren’s MP4-12C controls the brakes individually at all four wheels, even when you’re not asking for any brake pressure whatsoever. Their systems engineers have determined that they can use the brakes individually to correct oversteer or understeer without your input. When your shiny new Macca is understeering into a guardrail, the inside rear brake is applied to tighten up your line. You’ll shit your pants, but your girlfriend will probably be very impressed.
What’s still there? You’re ultimately the decision maker. Your right foot still has a reasonably direct link to the throttle, and a largely direct link to the brakes. We still maintain as precise a control as we’ve always had. Stomping down on the go-pedal earns smiles, and standing on the brake pedal still hauls you down in a hurry... but both are achieved in a more precise, controlled manner.
What’s lost? The mechanical link is gone, especially when it comes to throttle-by-wire systems. Where your right foot used to physically connect to the throttle valve, it now passes through an electronic intermediary. The correlation between the angle of your foot and the amount of throttle valve opening is gone. We no longer have final say in application of throttle; the decision is weighed by the ECU and what it perceives the conditions to be. Some manufacturers allow the system to be turned off or hidden away in the form of selective traction control, but that’s only part of the equation; ultimately you still have no physical mechanical link. Brakes are handled in much the same manner, though in the interest of safety the mechanical link gets the final say. ABS is nothing new, but its implementation is now carried by the integrated controls of the vehicle as a whole, not just when stopping abruptly.
And this computer will steal your girlfriend when you leave town
Dynamic vehicle control through computers has slowly been infiltrating the auto industry for a long time now. You can’t be trusted not to flip your 5000lbs Range Rover when granny tries to take your lane, so electric assist systems have been quietly watching your ass for many years. They may or may not have been keeping track of your conversations with your wives and girlfriends, taking notes and biding their time... but that’s neither here nor there.
In the context of driving fast and taking chances, the ECU is king. Ferrari pops into mind here, as they’ve somewhat led the supercar charge into electrification. It no longer takes just driver talent and brilliant mechanical engineering to lap Fiorano quickly, you need heavy computer geekery too. There’s no question about it: the future of sports cars is in electronically controlled differentials, dampers, and active aerodynamics all manipulated by a common brain. Ferrari boasts that it’s latest flagship, the TheFerrari, has integrated electronics which do everything from keeping the big V12 revved up during cornerning, vectoring thrust appropriately and independently to the wheels, to actively and constantly controlling the aerodynamics. If we were to imagine having manual mechanical control over all these systems, the footwell would probably look like a piano. Forget it, you’re not good enough.
What’s still there? The illusion of control. You get to decide when to turn left and how quickly to do it. You get to decide whether you want to accelerate in haste, or keep it cool.
What’s lost? We know the physical links are altered or gone altogether, but in the case of dynamic controls, nothing is really lost because it was never there to begin with. We, as drivers, never had the sort of infinitesimal command of our vehicles that we do today. Some had far more control than others of course; there are no words to describe the level of admiration I have for the other-worldly skills of legends like Timo Salonen or Ayrton Senna of the mechanical era, but even those guys couldn’t control their cars in the way we can today. And if that all seems kind of contrary or ironic to the scope of this article, it’s supposed to be.
Drivers have relinquished direct control over mechanical systems in order to gain indirect control of variables and vehicle dynamics we couldn’t even imagine just several years ago.
As for me? I’ll forever be craving the clutch. /shed tear, exit stage left