I’ve always wondered about why manual transmissions generally get better mileage than automatics. The answer is surprisingly simple: humans are better shifters.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s fuel economy ratings, cars with manual transmissions typically beat their automatic peers by a mile or two per gallon. This is largely because manuals give you more control over an engine’s exertions. Despite recent advances in slushbox design, humans are still better than automated systems at recognizing precisely when to shift gears. And smart shifting enables you to limit an engine’s rotations per minute, which translates into less fuel consumption.
But here’s my question: Why isn’t there a computer that can shift better than a human? What’s the unique cognitive talent behind gear shifting that a computer can’t master? It seems to me like designing a “smarter” transmission would be a fairly easy task. If we can design a computer program that can beat a grandmaster at chess, or diagnose a heart attack better than a cardiologist, then why can’t we build a transmission that knows when to go from second to third gear?