The first commercially available automatic transmission became available to car buyers in the United States in 1948. Its primary selling point involved making driving more enjoyable due to less work required to drive, since there was no need to manually shift the transmission. It was a special order accessory, adding to the cost of a new vehicle purchase. The pattern did an about-face during the following 60-plus years. Today the automatic transmission is a standard feature in most vehicles; a standard or manual transmission now costs extra. This has come about because of advances in automotive, manufacturing and materials management technology.
Automotive technological advances that are slowly causing the disappearance of manual transmissions in new vehicles fall along a couple of different lines. Originally, standard transmissions were more fuel-efficient than automatic transmissions. The opposite now rings true: With improved construction materials and increasing technical sophistication, many automatic transmissions now get better miles-per-gallon ratings than comparable manual transmissions. Manual transmissions used to give the driver more control over the vehicle. Standard transmissions made it possible to accelerate much faster than with an automatic transmission. Today, automatics are able to accelerate at least as quickly as a standard and often faster.
Advances in manufacturing technology have also added to the decrease in manual transmission availability as a stock option in new vehicles. At the introduction of automatic transmissions, the assembly of both the transmission and the vehicle relied primarily on manual labor. Now they can be assembled almost entirely using robotics and automation. Because robots and automatons do not need breaks, there is a substantial increase in their productivity output compared to humans. Any variation in their routine requires modifications in the production process that cost time and money, making it considerably less expensive for the manufacturer to offer the automatic transmission as the standard option as opposed to a special-order manual transmission.
Advances in material management technology and processes have also added to the diminishing availability of a manual transmission as a stock item in a new vehicle purchase. Previously, when an automatic transmission was offered as an option, the manufacturer had to obtain and store the transmission until someone ordered it. Transmissions are large and heavy items, so this led to considerable effort and expense. With computerized ordering capability, just-in-time delivery and computerized inventory control, this requirement has been all but eliminated.
Changes in driving standards
The last but least-obvious reason that manual transmissions are disappearing as a stock vehicle option is that, after 60-plus years of driving automatic transmissions, people are no longer being taught how to drive with a manual transmission. Rather than learn how (which requires some effort and practice), it is easier for the consumer to shop for a vehicle that has an automatic transmission. With decreased demand comes a shift in manufacturing and, ultimately, consumer availability.