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So you're used to driving an auto but need to switch to a manual car? Here's what you need to know to stay safe on SA's roads

2019-08-28 09:00

Compiled by Janine Van der Post

With Cape Town being rated as the most congested city in South Africa, and Johannesburg a close second, it's no wonder that most many drivers choose vehicles fitted with automatic transmission.

A daily commute to work can take up to almost three hours in traffic, so auto 'boxes are a boon, and let's not mention the trip back home.

However, sometimes you might find yourself in a situation where you're used to driving an auto vehicle and are forced to switch to a manual gearbox. This could possibly be hazard in the event of an emergency on the road when swift thinking is needed.

Manual vs auto

Eugene Herbert, Group Managing Director of MasterDrive SA says: "From an experienced drivers perspective there should not really be a challenge when driving either vehicle - manual or auto.

"There are however some unforeseen challenges on occasion:

 • When swapping from manual to auto the inattentive driver could, on slowing down, look for the clutch which they are used to depressing and inadvertently hit the brake – which typically has a larger pedal – thereby creating an emergency-braking situation. Lets not forget the shock to any following vehicles when the brake lights are suddenly switched on.

 • The possibility of attempting a gear down on an auto when one is used to driving a manual. On the other hand driving a manual when used to an auto could result in:

- Approaching an intersection forgetting to de-clutch on slow down could result in stalling the vehicle and thus creating a traffic hazard.

- Pulling off on an auto on an incline is also no challenge (unless the manual car has hill-start assist) as the driver could over rev or stall the vehicle on pull away.

"On the road driving, providing one is driving within one's limitations and the vehicles capabilities should not prove an issue. In fact the benefits of driving an auto is less tiring and therefore is typically less stressful."


What should one know about oversteer, especially when driving at speed, in a manual and an auto vehicle?

Herbert says: "It depends largely on the situation as there are a few factors that would impact ( no pun intended) on the outcome.

"Typically an oversteer in any vehicle would be corrected  by doing two things: 

• Removing the cause of the problem (which is probably the vehicle having too much power) at that point – lift the foot off the throttle which will automatically cause the vehicle to slow down – in a manual the clutch would be depressed -  and...

• Steer the vehicle in the direction you want it to go which is done by looking at the intended travel direction.

Herbert  said: "As you will see there is no difference in a manual or auto as the most crucial components ( steering and power) are the same.

"That said  if one were traveling around a bend the “laws of physics” are being broken then very little can be done to prevent a crash. 

"Imagine going around a bend at a speed higher than the posted safety number and there is a fixed object in the path of travel that the laws of physics  will take the vehicle  - there can only be one outcome a crash -  irrespective of whether it is auto or manual.

"The only piece of technology that could possibly ( note the caveat ) change the outcome is if the vehicle was fitted with some type of stability control (ESP)."

How difficult is it to switch from one type of transmission to the other?

Rob-Hanfield Jones, from Driving.co.za, said: "If a driver has been taught to drive properly, changing gears should be a habitual skill. For instance, my daily driver is an auto, but I have a sports car which I rarely drive more than once or twice a month, which is manual. Honestly, when I get into it, I don't even notice.

"The problem on our roads is that about half of drivers have bought their licences, so they are clueless on the use of gears, because they've never been taught. Most of the bought licence guys can't let the clutch out smoothly or change gears properly. Our trainers see them daily and it's just plain scary.

"That said, autos are the way of the future. They are smoother, more economical and mean one is always in the correct gear with both hands on the steering wheel. All electric cars are de facto automatics, so I expect to see manual vanish completely within the next seven to ten years. Remember that Ferrari hasn't built a manual car for more than a decade..."

We also find out whether it's okay to skip gears in a car with a manual gearbox:

Do you skip gears when driving? Is it something you don't do because you think it will damage your manual gearbox? 

Thankfully, Engineering Explained has created a video answering the above questions and putting to rest any myths you may have heard around the topic.

The video caption says: "Ultimately, manual transmissions are designed with flexibility in mind. Inherently, they allow for choosing any gear at any time, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should." 


Gearboxes explained and how they actually work:
Info by AutoTrader

Aside from parallel parking, the gearbox is probably the most feared aspect of learning to drive.

What gear to use when, how to balance the clutch and how to prevent the car from stalling are all challenges that we face when learning how to drive.

In the simplest terms, a gearbox (or a transmission if you're American) is a system of toothed gears that either reduce or increase the speed of rotation.

A 2:1 (pronounced as "two to one") ratio will see the output shaft make two revolutions for every one revolution of the input shaft.

This allows the wheels to turn slower, or faster than the engine speed as needed.

Pull away from the lights and while your engine is doing 2 000rpm, your wheels will only be doing a few hundred RPM.

All images: Supplied by AutoTrader SA

Not all gearboxes are created equal though, so let's look at the most common types available so that you can decide which one is best for you.


Manual

This is the oldest and simplest gearbox that is still in use today.

Outside of America and Australia, this was the most common gearbox for many decades. With the manual gearbox, the driver is responsible for changing the gears through a selecting lever, most commonly mounted alongside them or in older examples, on the steering column or dashboard. 

In order for the driver to be able to change the gears, the engine has to be disconnected from the gearbox.

The driver does this by disengaging the clutch by pressing the clutch pedal.

The required gear is selected with the clutch pedal depressed and when the selection is completed, the clutch pedal is released and the clutch reengages. 

Manual gearboxes are the simplest and most cost effective to produce and as such are regarded as being the most durable, requiring the least maintenance. 


While requiring more effort and adding additional input from the driver, the manual gearbox is still regarded as the purist approach to motoring.

For the longest time, high-performance and race cars were all fitted with manual gearboxes.

Advances in technology have done away with this norm, but enthusiasts will still gravitate toward the manual gearbox for ultimate driver engagement.


Automatic

The automatic gearbox is, as the name suggests, a gearbox that changes gears automatically. The driver selects the desired range of gears (most commonly indicated by a D for Drive) and allows the car to do the rest.

At set RPM intervals, the gearbox will select the following gear to best correspond with the throttle input, engine and road speed.

When slowing down, the gearbox will change to a lower gear until the vehicle comes to a stop, where it disengages automatically to prevent the engine from stalling.

A torque converter is employed to transmit the rotational forces from the engine to the gearbox and still allow for disengagement when bringing the vehicle to a standstill.

Torque converters are known to be parasitic in that they are prone to rob the engine of power, only transmitting a percentage of the engine power to the gearbox and thus the wheels.

The elimination of the clutch system means that there is no need for a clutch pedal and the driver only has to contend with a throttle / accelerator and a brake pedal. As such, the automatic is regarded as the easiest to drive and the most relaxing or comfortable.

While the automatic has its advantages in high volume traffic scenarios, many enthusiasts will still scoff the idea, despite the modern advances in power handling capabilities and shift times.



Continuously Variable Transmission

The Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is very similar in operation to the automatic in that it offers an automated driving experience.

Its principle is significantly different though. Where an automatic gearbox has a system of planetary gears, the CVT uses a system of conical cylinders and belts so that a near-infinite range of ratios is available. This creates a smooth drive with seamless "changes".

The easy of use and linear gearing means that a CVT system should, in theory, be the most fuel efficient of all the gearboxes as it allows the engine to remain at a single, effective and efficient RPM while altering the road speed.

This fluidity unfortunately dulls down the driving experience and steals some of the character that driving enthusiasts long for when driving.

As a result, manufacturers may program the gearbox to simulate a small shudder to replicate the sensation of changing gears.



Semi-Automatic

Semi-Automatic gearboxes include a range of shifting and selecting options but we'll concentrate on the two most common examples found on our roads today, traditional torque converter and dual-clutch systems.

Both systems will function like a full automatic where the driver selects Drive and no clutch operation is needed, even when coming to a stop.

Many semi-automatic offerings, regardless of type, will offer steering wheel or column mounted shift paddles to allows the driver to select the desired gear, either changing up or down as the need arises.

Traditional torque converter-style

These gearboxes function in the same manner as a regular automatic with the additional option of driver input without needing a clutch.

These still use a torque converter to transmit the power and as such, the shifts between gears, even when reacting on driver input, are often slower.

Sometimes also referred to as Tiptronic / Steptronic / SelectShift / S-Tronic.


                                                              All images: Supplied by AutoTrader SA

Dual-Clutch

Dual-Clutch gearboxes are based on the manual gearbox system with two computer-controlled clutches: One for the odd gears and one for the even gears.

This allows for a near instantaneous switch between gears with many manufacturers claiming shifts faster than a manual gearbox.

The most common Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) is the Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG) as found in VW offerings with a similar system found in Audi models.

Drivers can select between full automatic mode, which leaves the changes in the computers hands or opt to change gears themselves by either toggling the shift paddles behind the steering wheel or tapping the gear lever to either +/-.

DCT gearboxes have progressed extensively over the past few years and despite their cost to produce, are being found in smaller vehicles with many high-performance cars opting to fit DCT gearboxes as standard over manuals.

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