Skip to Content

The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: Manual labour

I am writing this in the brown-carpeted lounge of Phoenix Sky Harbor, which claims to be America’s friendliest airport — and indeed that may well be so.

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

7 May 2011

12:00 AM

I am writing this in the brown-carpeted lounge of Phoenix Sky Harbor, which claims to be America’s friendliest airport — and indeed that may well be so.

I am writing this in the brown-carpeted lounge of Phoenix Sky Harbor, which claims to be America’s friendliest airport — and indeed that may well be so. Enough to make David Cameron gag with envy are the people of retirement age helpfully wandering about wearing badges which declare them to be unpaid airport volunteers, in which role they offer assistance to bemused travellers. You don’t get that at Heathrow Terminal 2, as far as I can remember.

One of the reasons I like to visit the United States frequently is to gather ammunition against that majority of Europeans for whom it is an article of faith that America’s economic success comes at some intolerable social price. In fact, especially in red states, the level of kindness and consideration puts Britain to shame.


To be frank, with the single exception of health care and gun control, the number of areas where Europeans can feel smug in relation to the United States is vanishingly small (although I suppose it is possible that it is America’s widespread gun possession that makes everyone so polite). So I would now like to tackle one of the last great areas in which Europeans cling to a feeling of smug superiority versus the US — a sense of superiority so deeply ingrained that I may be the first person in any British publication to make this assertion.

You see, I truly believe that automatic transmission in cars is much, much better than manual transmission. And not only better for the owner of the car, but for other road users and pedestrians too. In fact, I think, rather like guns, manual transmission should be outlawed in urban areas.

If I lived on the A9 north of Inverness, I might be tempted to own a manual car — for the pleasure of double-declutching on a winding, empty road. But since most people today drive the majority of their miles either in cities or on motorways, the pleasure to be derived from manual transmission is pretty scant.

Manual transmission is only really good in the hands of the best 10 per cent of drivers, in which category most Britons do not belong. Americans acknowledge this, with only serious petrol-heads using a stick-shift. What this means is that, when you drive anywhere in America, you benefit immensely from everyone else’s driving an automatic. Cars pull away at the lights more briskly, accelerate more constantly, and in areas where there is a speed limit, they find it easy to maintain this speed. As a result of this, a pleasant consensus emerges as to the ideal speed on any stretch of road — which for me made the drive from LA to Phoenix less stressful than travelling between adjacent junctions on the M25.

But there are other external benefits which we have never even acknowledged in Europe. The automatic car’s facility for inching forwards or backwards makes manoeuvring in car parks and junctions far safer and easier. And the United States’ near-universal adoption of automatic transmission has great spin-off benefits in terms of road design and architecture. You can place road junctions at the top of a hill in Los Angeles in a way in which, were you to try it in London, would cause several write-offs every day through someone rolling into the car behind. Automatic transmission allows for the elegant homeostasis of the four-way stop sign. And it allows architects to build precipitously steep driveways leading to hillside houses in a way that would be impossible in Britain — where most cars don’t have a failsafe ‘Park’ setting.

So there. I’ve finally said it. In my next column find out why, under a future Sutherland administration, it will be compulsory for all fridges to dispense ice.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.


Show comments
Close