While driving I noticed that the gearbox is complicated for a first time users. I find it hard to tell which gear my car is in while driving.

Is there a reason for this design, and is there a better alternative that could be implemented? Personally, I like simple buttons to change the speed any time you want without any confusion.

  • 7
    It's called "automatic transmission". Have one and forget about gearbox at all. I don't really need it as a user. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 6:37
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    Have you never played an arcade racer? Manual always goes faster! ;)
    – Wander
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 9:37
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    It's a good question. The replacement of physical handbrakes with electronic ones seems to be disliked by a lot of drivers. Electronic ISN'T always an improvement.
    – PhillipW
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 10:00
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    @Captain: For the sake of completeness: "Shift indicators" have been around for quite a long time. My 1975 Mazda RX-5 came equipped with a factory "overrev buzzer" that emits a pleasurable tone* when it's time to shift. (*tone not actually pleasurable) Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 15:00
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    the question is flawed in that it makes an assumption that a stick shift is complicated.
    – DA01
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 17:07

6 Answers 6


Driving is complicated for any first timer. That is why you have driving schools teaching you how to do it. The most challenging thing there is not the gear shifting, but dealing with traffic.

The gear shifts you propose do exist. They originate from the racing world, and Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson refers to them as "flappy paddle gearbox". They allow manual shifting using basically two handles behind the steering wheel that you can pull forward with your fingers to shift up or shift down. It is basically an automatic transmission with controls that allow manual timing on when to shift. That is faster to operate than the traditional stick.

However, this method is

  1. way more expensive,
  2. way more complicated in maintenance, and
  3. provides no intrinsic feedback on what gear you are in!

An experienced driver can feel from the stick position what the current gear is. No additional (visual) feedback is really needed. For the flappy paddle gearbox type, you will need an additional visual feedback somewhere, probably a number on the dashboard somewhere. How is that more intuitive than operating a stick? On the other hand: while driving, you judge by the sound and feel of the car if you're in the right gear. About the only time you need explicit feedback is when standing still because you either want to start reversing, or you want to pull out.

  • 1
    Also, traditional gearsticks allow you to change directly from 5th to 1st should you need to. Paddle gears mean you'd have to shift through all the available gears to jump around. That's not always practical in quick reaction situations (i.e. acceleration)
    – JonW
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 9:29
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    As someone who suffered a nasty motorway accident at the hands of malfunctioning 'fly by wire' I'll stick to physical controls thanks !
    – PhillipW
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 10:02
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    "For the flappy paddle gearbox type, you will need an additional visual feedback somewhere" - as a motorcyclist I rarely have problems with my sequential gears. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 11:20
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    @MSalters: Gear synchros really aren't that complicated. The whole 5-to-1 discussion is moot anyway; Unless you're at a stop or extremely slow crawl, there's no reason to shift directly from 5 to 1. In fact, if you were to do this at speed you're going to do two things: cause unnecessary wear on the synchro rings trying to jam the lever into 1st, and then over-rev your motor once you let the clutch back out. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 14:51
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    +1 for the last paragraph. I never look at my gearstick; feel and sound tell me everything I need to know. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 15:28

In summary:

  1. Because of mechanical constraints and cost
  2. Tradition
  3. The interface is optimized for experienced users

The interface for a manual transmission is somewhat complex because it's a historical design driven by technological limitations. The shifter in most cars with a stick is still a mechanical linkage pushing around bits of steel inside a very complex set of gears. The abstraction leaks, in sometimes annoying but also useful ways, and determines where and how the stick shifter can be set up, unless you want to go to a very expensive system.

It's also tradition, and car UIs move very slowly. The "H" pattern has been honed over the years, including the spacing of the notches, the angle between them, the length of the throw, how hard or easy it is to push the stick around, and so forth. Likewise the engagement throw of the clutch pedal is something that car manufacturers engineer very precisely (for cars where this is a selling point).

Finally, the interface is optimzied for experienced, rather than novice, users--as most of us will be experienced users of our own vehicle, as well as experienced users of cars in general. Once learned, the feel of the stick and the pedal give the driver a lot of information about the state of the car's engine and wheels and the interaction between them, information that is lacking in an automatic. Having driven both extensively, it's clear that it is much harder to understand what is going on with your tractive surfaces in an automatic.

  • 3
    +1 for "the interface is optimized for experienced, rather than novice, users". Driving with a manual transmission gives you more direct control over the vehicle which may or may not be what you want out of your car. It's like comparing vim to notepad, vim is definitely not easy for the first time user, but damn powerful once you learn it.
    – Leo
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 15:27

Manual transmissions may not be "highly usable" but they are a "highly learnable" interaction. Once you learn a stick, all you have to do is rest your hand on it to know where it is. Also, you learn how a car "feels" so that if you're at 40 miles per hour, you know how the car feels in third and fourth gears respectively.

Learnability is better to design for than usability often times.

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    Why is learnability better than usability sometimes though? Can it not be instinctive and still provide the same overall functionality?
    – JonW
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 15:40
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    Not all interactions can be simplified. As others have mentioned the simplification of the Manual transmission IS the automatic transmission, so when faced with a complex issue, make it easily learnable. When you rest your hand on the stick and learn how third gear "feels" that's a nice natural learnability. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 16:28

It's not just a matter of UX and simply changing the design. It's a technical implementation.

Check out this type of transmission: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multitronic

Of course, since this is a rather complicated design, it makes the car and its maintanance more expensive. I believe it also has its limitations towards torque it can process. So it is certainly not an option for every consumer. At some point, a balance needs to be made between ease of use and cost. In Europe, for most users the balance is biased towards the lower cost.

  • I think user doesn't care about technical implementation or what physics rules applied under the hood.I agree automatic transmission would cost drastically but ain't designing and engineering there to solve problems in easy and cost effective way.
    – UXbychoice
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 7:14
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    While manual transmissions require painful learning, after they are mastered, their use becomes nearly second nature. Many may feel that the reduced cost and superior control are worth the effort it takes to master their use.
    – Darq
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 7:23
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    @Hem: So what is your question then? Do you want us to design an alternative to an automatic transmission that has the same cost/reliability as a manual transmission? If I could do that I would probably not be here answering this question. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 7:44
  • obviously i don't you to design a system here:D but i want to know why designer didn't think of the problem.(I know there are plenty of application badly designed) or what could be simple less expensive design except Automatic transmissions.
    – UXbychoice
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 7:59
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    @Hem: that is why designers think about the vehicles which don't require to be driven at all. The basic user need is to be transported in the shortest time with maximum comfort. You don't even have a need for owning a car. It would be much cheaper and effective if cars were centrally managed, could drive autonomously and navigate independently. The remaining usage cases would probably require having a "car" in today's understanting of such word. Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 8:13

Great answers so far. Another thing is as a manual driver I know what gear I am in most the time just by the speed that I am driving and the sound of the engine. If the revs sound too high / low I know it's time to change. I don't remember the last time I looked at it whilst driving; It would be dangerous!

This is a question that's going to get different answers because of region. I recently went to USA on holiday and drove an automatic, and I prefer the control you get with a manual. I do lots of driving and don't see it as a hindrance.

  • 1
    Of course there are huge differences in automatic transmissions. They used to respond slowly, or have strange behaviour (like unnecessary shifting). But nowadays BMW for example have an 8 step transmission. It is extremely fast, has different modes (like eco, sport,...) to get different responses. I have even been told it takes into account GPS map data to determine the shift points, so that it will not shipt up right before a bend for which it needs to shift down). Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 10:50

I don't think the UX of a gearbox really matters that much because when you're using it, you're not supposed to look at it. Your eyes should be on the road. If anything, a dashboard could have a visual indication about which gear you're in.

They're designed to be operated without a need to look at them.

  • 8
    UX is more than looks !
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 10:17
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    The original post was only about the visual looks.
    – Pieter B
    Commented Oct 29, 2012 at 11:40

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