Cell phones may be the last nail in the coffin of the stick shift.
For years, Americans have been bringing more nondriving activities to their cars, turning transportation machines into minihomes. People who once enjoyed feeling a direct connection to their engines wanted to concentrate on weightier matters than their gears. Cheap gasoline wiped out the mileage advantage of manual transmissions. Furthermore, using a clutch in heavy traffic takes a toll on aging knees."People are basically getting lazier and less connected to their cars," says David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. The percentage of cars and light trucks with stick shifts has dropped from 17.5 percent in the 1989 model year to 13.6 percent in 1997, according to J.D. Power & Associates.
By contrast, the ratio of manual to automatic transmissions is about 9 to 1 in Europe, where many drivers take driving more seriously - another reason European cars were late to add cup holders.
In fact, try learning to drive a car with a manual transmission these days. Most driving schools have given up teaching students the tricky two-step of clutch and accelerator. "To train someone to drive a stick shift can ruin a transmission," says Bonnie Sargent of Sargents School for Driving in Pontiac, Mich. "They can strip the gears." Finding a rental car with a manual transmission is similarly difficult: Hertz Corp., for example, says its U.S. fleet is 100 percent automatic and has been for about 10 years.
Manual transmissions are as old as cars, although the earliest models had two gears, compared with today's usual five. In the 1930s, trying to create more passenger room in the front seat, automakers took the stick shift off the floor and put it on the steering column. In 1940, Oldsmobile produced the first successful automatic transmission, an option that added an extra $100 to a car that cost between $800 and $1,500, depending on the model.
The automatics were a quick hit, popular with women and with soldiers who returned from World War II with injured or missing limbs. The advent of bucket seats in the 1960s put the shift - whether manual or automatic - back on the floor, and the sporty cars of the period featured the "four on the floor."
In the past few decades, auto makers have been putting more bells and whistles in cars, including gadgets like temperature control, compact-disk players, telephones and computer connections, as well as automatic locks and windows. With these features, Americans increasingly expect to be "served" by their cars.