Catching up on cars

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

-Ferris Bueller
Granger Meador

An article in the Tulsa World caught my attention this Thanksgiving Day morning. The Putting physics to work headline easily ensnared this former physics teacher, but upon realizing it was about the 2021 Corvette C8 Stingray supercar, my eyes glazed over and I turned to the next (virtual) page of the electronic edition.

I’m not a car enthusiast and was particularly disinterested in a car with a list price of $67,495 which cost over $90,000 as tested. But then a shot on the next page, of the coupe with its removable targa roof panel and the retractable hardtop convertible, looked pretty snazzy. I was in no hurry this morning, as Wendy and I had already celebrated Thanksgiving earlier this week with my parents in Oklahoma City, so I threw my e-edition into reverse to scan the piece.

2021 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray Coupe and Convertible

Mild interest became incredulity when I read that the supercar has no stickshift option – it only offers an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. Say what?

The new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray has no stickshift

I knew that for decades high-end sports cars offered manual transmissions so that enthusiasts could shift more quickly and maximize power output, whereas cost-conscious folks would put manual transmissions into economy cars to save weight and get more miles per gallon. But clearly things have changed. Heck, my wife’s minivan has a 9-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters, so what is something like that doing in a supercar?

That prompted me to research how car transmissions have been evolving, which led to learning more about other interesting changes I was only vaguely aware of. I’m sharing my findings in this long post since they might interest some of my Gentle Readers. Again, I’m no car buff, although I do understand their basic components and the principles behind them.

This Gen-Xer Can’t Drive a Stick

We hear jokes about how Millenials can’t drive a stick, but this early Gen-X can’t either. I did have three friends in high school and college who drove stick shifts. My best friend drove an old used manual car more out of budgetary necessity than enthusiasm, while one of the smartest girls in our school adored driving her stick shift car and would rev it up when tooling around. Another good friend and landlord drove an old pickup with a column shifter.

An old driver’s ed simulator

But I have zero actual experience operating a manual transmission. The closest I ever came was in our high school driver’s education course. When I was 15, I was in one of several simulators positioned in front of a 16mm film projector screen when Mr. Cornelius told us to reach under the dashboards of our simulators and pull down an unsuspected clutch pedal. Then we pulled a knob and rotated our steering columns to bring a disused handle into position…a column shifter. After some confusing and cursory instructions, Mr. Cornelius stepped back, started the film, and red warning lights flooded my simulator’s display as I struggled to get my “car” into gear. I never got all of the red lights to go out that day, and that was that.

A column shifter

My first car was a puny 1976 Toyota Corolla I had inherited from a grandmother who only learned to drive when she was in her 70s. It had no cruise control, no air conditioner, and no power steering, let alone power windows, locks, or seats. Gosh, it didn’t even have a decent radio, which suited Big Mama just fine, as she proclaimed Satan was the prince of the power of the air. But I can attest that she drove like the devil on old US 77 from Paoli to do her grocery shopping in Pauls Valley and Purcell.

My first car was a pitiful 1976 Toyota Corolla, but even it had an automatic transmission

That pitiful vehicle had no added features at all save one…a three-speed automatic transmission. And all of the cars I drove after that were automatics as well.

My unfamiliarity with stick shifts was never a handicap. It was actually a bonus when I worked for the state tourism department. I was told to drive a truck to go pick up items from the bus depot. I dutifully walked out to the truck but, upon discovering it was a manual, trudged back. They had to send one of my laziest coworkers out to chauffeur me to the bus depot, and I appreciated that, along with having another fellow on hand to help schlep the supplies.

In 2016, US News & World Report unhelpfully said anywhere from 18% to 60% could drive a stick. In a 2020 Harris Poll, 55% of Americans said they have owned a manual transmission car at some point, and 66% said they knew how to operate one, but I’m skeptical of those figures.

Supercar Transmissions

It turns out that many high-end European sports cars stopped offering manual transmissions years ago. You can’t get a stick shift Ferrari, McLaren, or Lamborghini anymore, so Chevy is just following the trend with its latest Stingray. I found a great video from CNBC on the matter.

The statistics on the decline in manual transmissions were striking.

I was similarly surprised when the video revealed that 2018 was the last year any full-size pickups had a manual option. That left me pondering what else has been changing in the vehicle industry that might have eluded my notice.

My Fleet

Here are the cars I have driven over the years, with the initial three being used cars during high school and college and the final three new cars I bought and drove as a working adult:

YearMakeModelTransmissionDriveCylindersHorsepowerMiles per Gallon
1976ToyotaCorolla3-speed automaticRearInline 45525
1978ChevroletMonte Carlo3-speed automaticRearV816016/22
1981ToyotaCelica Supra4-speed automaticRearStraight 611622/29
1991HondaAccord4-speed automaticFrontInline 414019/26
2001ToyotaCamry4-speed automaticFrontInline 413020/29
2014ToyotaCamry6-speed automaticFrontInline 417825/34
2018HondaOdyssey9-speed automaticFrontV628019/28

I added my wife’s minivan as the final entry in the table, since I have ample experience driving it on road trips and hauling items around town.

My folks allowed me to add a FM radio/cassette deck and speakers as well as air conditioning to the horrid 1976 Corolla. After I had proven myself, they provided the upgrade to the big used Monte Carlo. But it wasn’t very reliable and guzzled gas, so in college my dad helped me get the sportiest car I’ve ever had – a used Celica Supra built before Supras became an independent line of high-performance sports cars. It was great fun to drive, but tended to overheat and was treacherous on winter roads. As an adult I have only bought new but boring front-wheel-drive sedans, with reliability being my top priority.

The 2001 Camry was my favorite of the six cars, with the fun Supra coming in second. I paid for alloy wheels on both Camrys, having liked them on the Supra and disliking the plastic hubcaps on the Accord. Even though I splurged on leather seats and a moon roof for my quite reliable 2014 Camry, I’m just not fond of it. It has a rough and noisy ride and is not much to look at. My disconnect from it is illustrated by how I responded to hitting a raccoon years ago along US 60 between Bartlesville and Nowata. I lost a fog light and several underpanels were knocked loose. I never replaced that light and just wired up the panels to keep them from flapping and dragging. After I took the car in to the dealer for its 75,000-mile maintenance, I noticed that they replaced some of my old wires with zip ties, and that’s all the love it is likely to get. I plan to replace the car around 2025; more on that later.

Transmissions

For over thirty years all of my cars had 3 or 4-speed automatic transmissions. I only realized my second Camry had more gearings when I downshifted for big hills. But the first time I drove the minivan, I immediately noticed how rapidly it was shifting gears, recognizing it had oodles of them, and I’ve accidentally stumbled into the “manual” paddle shifting mode once or twice.

Here’s a chart showing how the number of gears has multiplied over the past 20 years, which I extracted, like many others, from the EPA’s 2021 Automotive Trends Report.

Another chart shows how in the past decade automatic transmissions actually overtook manual transmissions on fuel economy.

Which is a contributor to the continuing long slide in manual transmission sales.

In addition to the dramatic increase in the number of gears, almost all automatic transmissions these days have a lock-up control system. That likely needs some explanation.

In a manual transmission, the clutch transfers the rotational power from the engine to the wheels. You press the clutch pedal to break that connection so that you can change gears in the transmission. You need the gears since the engine has a limited range of revolutions per minute. In low gear, the engine spins many times for each rotation of the wheels. A 2020 Honda Civic’s engine spins almost 16 times to turn the driven wheels once when in first gear. But if you drive 30 miles per hour in that gear, the poor engine is having to spin over 6,000 revolutions per minute, which is near its limit. So you have to shift to higher gears to lower the number of engine revolutions for each wheel revolution. By the time you reach sixth gear, the engine is only spinning 3 times to turn the driven wheels once.

An automatic transmission shifts gears for you, and since the late 1960s, they have used torque converters as the power linkage to the engine, with an impeller connected to the engine and a turbine connected to the transmission.

A lock-up control system uses a clutch within the automatic transmission to mechanically link the impeller and turbine at high speeds, rather than continuing to rely on the fluid linkage between them. That reduces energy losses from fluid drag, improving fuel economy. My earliest cars didn’t have the lock-up clutch in their automatic transmissions, but nowadays most cars and trucks have them: in the charts below, the As without lock-ups have been replaced with Ls. And notice the rise in the past 15 years in continuously variable transmissions, which typically use a belt and variable-diameter pulleys to dispense with discrete gears altogether.

Vehicle Types

I’ve long realized that I was out of sync with many Oklahomans, who typically drive pickups and sports utility vehicles (SUVs), whereas I started out with a couple of two-door coupes and a two-door hatchback and have driven three four-door sedans for 30 years. My father liked station wagons and Volkswagen campers, which are even rarer these days. The next chart shows how sedans and wagons have dropped from over 3/4 of the market back when I began driving to only a bit over 1/4 today.

I find it interesting how the proportion of pickups has changed little over time and how minivans and vans peaked in the mid-1990s and are now the smallest major category. It is no surprise to see that large SUVs now dominate the market.

The accompanying MPG chart shows how fuel economy has improved for each segment since I began driving…except for pickups. I’ve never liked pickups, but it has been fun to drive my wife’s minivan, which I appreciate for its road comfort and spacious enclosed room for cargo. I’m likely to stick with a sedan or coupe in the future, using it to commute around town, so long as Wendy has a minivan or other capacious vehicle we can use for long trips and to haul things.

As for why pickup mileage hasn’t improved, it’s because they have put on so much weight. Since 1975 their weight has increased by 28%, whereas smaller footprints and lighter engines and transmissions have helped sedans shed weight.

Here’s a look at the type distribution of vehicles by manufacturer in 2020. I am amazed that General Motors only has three sedans left in the US market: two Cadillacs and the Chevy Malibu. What a change from my childhood!

Better, Stronger, Faster

In the 1970s, The Six Million Dollar Man, in one of the best television show introductions ever made, told kids each week how they had rebuilt astronaut Steve Austin with bionics to make him better, stronger, and faster.

Vehicles are not bionic, but they’ve certainly embraced those improvements. Look at the incredible growth in horsepower since I began driving, after a sharp dip in the late 1970s after the Arab oil embargo in 1973-1974 and emission controls sapped domestic automobiles of their size and power and led to far more imports of smaller foreign models.

Fuel economy sharply improved in the late 1970s after the Arab oil embargo, which I recall as a time of lines at gas stations and the imposition of a nationwide 55 mph speed limit. We lost some of those gains from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s as vehicle weights crept back upward due to the transition from sedans to SUVs, but since then the increase in weight has leveled off and fuel economy has improved.

So better fuel economy and stronger engines, but what about faster? Well, take a gander at the 40% or more decrease in the time to go from 0 to 60 miles per hour across all vehicle types. That extra horsepower made it possible, and the incredible torque of fully electric sports cars allows a Tesla to match the times of the quickest Porsche or Corvette.

Another big improvement in my lifetime has been the shift from carburetors to fuel injection. My first two cars had carburetors, and I’m glad to have had fuel injection in the rest. The only advantage to carburetors is simplicity, with fuel injection improving emissions, fuel economy, power, and performance.

Carbureted engines disappeared in the early 1990s, and now the vast majority of vehicles have multi-valve variable port fuel injection or gasoline direct injection, with the latter becoming much more common over the past decade. In it, fuel from the tank is supplied to a common header and injected into a shared combustion chamber rather than the intake manifold, which increases engine efficiency and specific power output while reducing exhaust emissions. Those advantages led it to grow from 2% of US automobiles in 2008 to almost 50% today.

Cylinders

A cylinder is the chamber where fuel is combusted and power generated by pushing a piston, with valves to let fuel and air enter and leave. Most of my cars have had four cylinders in a straight line, although my Supra had six inline ones. My Monte Carlo had a big old V8 with four tilted cylinders on each side of the crankshaft, and Wendy’s minivan has a V6 with three tilted cylinders on each side. Inline engines are taller and narrower and, if mounted transversely, allow vehicles to have a smaller front end. V-type engines sit lower with an improved center of gravity.

When I began driving, 8-cylinder cars were being supplanted by 4-cylinder ones. V6 engines were increasingly common from 1987-2004, but since then four cylinders have been the most common configuration. The graph doesn’t always reach 100% since there are a few rotary engines and the like which have no cylinders, but rotary engines have several disadvantages.

Engines that Stop…and Restart

One oddity to me is that some gasoline engines now turn off at idle and quickly restart when you release the brake pedal. Less than 1% of cars did that in 2012, but in 2020 almost half of new vehicles, excluding hybrids, did this trick.

I’ve only experienced that behavior in a Ford Fusion Hybrid we rented for travels in Utah in 2018. I enjoyed driving it enough in electric-only mode to reconsider even having an engine in my next car.

Engines Versus Motors

We often say cars have big motors, but technically we are often wrong. The vast majority have internal combustion engines, with various small electrical motors used for accessories like power windows and wipers but not for locomotion.

For two decades we’ve had a growing share of vehicles that are gasoline-electric hybrids, and they have recently exploded in popularity.

Hybrids come in a variety of forms. They all have battery packs (separate from the conventional 12-volt battery) that can be recharged by capturing energy from deceleration that otherwise would have been lost to heat. The Toyota Prius is a parallel hybrid which connects both an electric motor and gasoline engine to a continuously variable transmission. The Prius and the Ford Fusion Hybrid we drove in Utah don’t ever get plugged into an outlet, instead having their gasoline engines recharge their battery packs. There are also plug-in hybrids with larger battery packs that must be recharged with an external electricity source, allowing for extended all-electric driving before the gasoline engine has to kick in.

Back in 2014, my 13-year-old Camry had 236,000 miles on her and one month had repairs which exceeded her bluebook value. So it was time to move on. I debated getting a hybrid Camry, but given that I had driven my previous two cars for over a decade each, the limited lifespan of the battery packs of that era and greater complexity of a hybrid led me to opt for another completely gasoline-powered Camry.

But now that we have the minivan, I rarely take my car out on long trips. I drive the car less than 20 miles most work days, so even with its limited range, a fully electric car would be a practical option if I had a 240-volt charging station installed in our garage. I like the idea of dispensing with over two dozen mechanical components and saying goodbye to oil changes, cooling system flushes, transmission servicing, the engine air filter, spark plugs, drive belts, and tune-ups. Electric vehicle owners spend about 1/3 of what owners of conventionally powered autos do for regular service.

I’d still need tire rotations, wiper blades, washer fluid, and would have to replace the cabin air filter now and then. The battery pack might last ten years if I can avoid fast-charging stations which tend to overheat them and shorten their life. All-electric cars have become much more common this year, although they are still fairly rare.

I see smaller electric SUVs are becoming more common as well, while large SUVs are more likely to be plug-in hybrids than fully electric.

The range of fully electric vehicles has improved a lot in recent years, and of course their fuel economy is stunning (and measured in miles per gallon electric, which uses the amount of electric energy equal to the energy in one gallon of gasoline).

One can estimate the cost of driving an electric car with the vehicle’s kilowatt-hours-per-100-miles rating and then looking up the cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour overnight when you would set your home charger to operate. That’s the fourth column in the next table, while the rightmost column shows the overall energy efficiency of various vehicles for all of the fuels they can use.

Some buy electric cars for their reduction in greenhouse gases, but one has to take into account the carbon dioxide emitted upstream by any fossil fuel power plants that generate the electricity you use to recharge the car’s battery pack. The next table illustrates how there is still a big reduction in overall carbon dioxide emissions for various electric and plug-in hybrids when compared to the average sedan.

But it is a good thing I don’t plan on purchasing my next car until 2025 or so. The actual production of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is still low.

Tesla is currently the overwhelmingly dominant player in this space, but it was next to dead last in brand reliability in the latest Consumer Reports ranking. All-electric SUVs were the lowest-ranking category overall, while gas-electric hybrids were among the most reliable vehicles. Recommended models were the Kia Niro Electric, Toyota RAV4 Prime, Toyota Prius Prime, and Nissan Leaf.

I’m hopeful that Toyota will enter the all-electric vehicle market with something quite reliable, but we shall see. They only now have announced their first mass-produced electric vehicle, the weirdly named bZ4X SUV, but say they will have a line-up of 15 battery-powered electric vehicles by 2025.

Changes Will Keep Coming

Automobiles will keep changing, of course, and one hopes that will bring ever greater improvements in fuel economy, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and improved reliability. A bit of style and panache wouldn’t hurt, either.

I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.

-Georg C. Lichtenberg

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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2 Responses to Catching up on cars

  1. kbjornen says:

    Granger,
    In a past life I did formulating of transmission and engine oils so I loved your post! One thing you didn’t touch on is the critical role of quantum leaps in the technology of control systems. My dad used to complain about not being able to fix his car anymore because of all the computer controls. But most of the advances you’ve described are the result of that technology. And it’s amazing how reliable they are.
    Thanks for explaining all of this so simply and clearly. BTW I was told by a research engineer at one of the auto companies that he looked hard for graduates with backgrounds in both electrical and mechanical engineering. So the best and brightest are in great demand!

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