There are many out there that have a bone to pick with that headline, and with good reason.
The notion that an automatic can never be as good as a manual gearbox simply isn't true anymore. Yes, in the past driving an automatic versus a manual meant there were a few compromises to give the driver an easier time with no need for a clutch, but that argument does not hold water today.
Carmakers recognized very early on that the automatic transmission has a lot of potential and they made it their mission to work on it. And in the last few decades, there have been many significant gains in automatic transmission (A/T) technology that -quite frankly- has allowed it to overtake the classic manual gearbox in so many ways.
So Many Types
The automatic transmission is really just characterized by having two pedals: just a throttle pedal and a brake pedal. But don't let that mislead you: there are so many types now.
Other two-pedal transmissions include the continuously variable transmission (CVT) which is becoming more common because of how efficient this transmission is because it adjusts the drive ratio to reduce fuel consumption. Another common type is the dual-clutch transmission (DCT) which was made popular, particularly in sports car or performance car applications because of the quick shifts and ability to handle a lot of power.
The one most of us are familiar with is the conventional automatic which, instead of using a clutch system, uses a hydraulic-driven torque converter to transfer power from the engine to the gears and to the wheels. And while it may be considered “conventional”, the new generation of automatic transmissions have a lot of new technology and engineering updates that have made them so much better than before.
The automatic gearbox now makes use of a lot of new software that improves the driving experience. Computer boxes and sensors have found ways to optimize the performance of these gearboxes, as the software figures out the correct gear for the correct engine speed and correct wheel speed.
The technology in your transmission computes factors such as temperatures, pressures, and even wear and tear. Some automatic transmission control units even have the ability to learn the driver's style and preferences and adjusts itself accordingly.
Some versions even have software that allows the driver to activate different modes such as (but not limited to) Economy mode for earlier shifting, Normal mode for all-around driving, or even a Sport mode that lets the transmission hold a gear longer.
In the 1990s, the automatic typically only had 4 forward gears or 4 speeds. That was then, but today the game is different.
4-speed transmissions are now obsolete, as modern automatic from a lot of car manufacturers generally have anywhere between 5 to 8 speeds. Yes, new technology, stronger metallurgy, and improvements in computer-assisted design have helped automakers with more compact and more capable automatic transmissions.
Some automakers are even trying out transmissions that have 9 or 10 speeds, but really the current sweet spot is the 5-speed automatic or 6-speed automatic, especially for longevity.
Better Fuel Efficiency
The big benefit of having more forward speeds and more gear ratios to play with is fuel efficiency. This was the key advantage of manual gearboxes in the past as having a 5-speed manual easily made it more efficient than a 4-speed automatic, but the new transmissions have caught up.
Having 5 or 6 speeds generally means a vehicle will be able to easily maintain a lower RPM at a certain cruising speed, just like a manual. And the lower the RPM at a certain speed easily means lower consumption.
Enhanced Power Delivery
Perhaps one of the biggest gains in automatic transmission technology is enhanced power delivery. Older automatics had significant power loss because of the hydraulic torque converter versus a more direct clutch-type manual gearbox.
Today, that has all changed. Engineers have worked on reducing the power loss with automatics with new torque converter technology. Lubricant companies are also coming up with more sophisticated transmission fluids that help enhance the performance of the vehicle, and help keep temperatures manageable.
There are more improvements all around, but today's new breed of automatic transmissions are much better and are being improved with every new generation.
The one thing that was really improved over the years is the reliability of the automatic gearbox. There are misconceptions that automatics can't be counted on to last, but that isn't true anymore.
Modern A/T units have been engineered to be as durable as they can be. New gearboxes and new cars are being tested for longer durations, over longer distances, and over a variety of climates such as punishing desert environments and extreme winter conditions. And the testing work continues in the virtual space as engineers run simulation after simulation to ensure that the transmission works as intended wherever you drive it.
All this development means that the automatic is now being used on a variety of applications and, more importantly, starting to be standard on even heavy-duty vehicles like trailer trucks for long-distance driving. The new generation automatics even work well off-road or when descending steep slopes in low gear.
If ever the driver wants to select the gear for the situation, many automatics now have a manual mode built-in for that classic drive feeling. Some automated gearboxes with a manual mode have paddle-shifters, while others have the shifter move to one side and allow the driver to select "+" to shift up, or select "-" to shift down. This can be either for enjoyment on a mountain road, or for making sure that the gear is the best for the situation.
The best thing about the manual mode is that, unlike a traditional manual gearbox, there is no chance for the driver to accidentally crunch the gears; otherwise known as a shift miss. This is very dangerous and is one of the leading causes why manual gearboxes get damaged break down; in an automatic with a manual mode, that cannot happen.
That means the transmission lasts longer regardless of who is driving and their proficiency level as the driver does not have to worry about working a clutch.
The Future Is Automatic
Make no mistake about it: the future of the automobile is automatic. The manual transmission will always be interesting, but the convenience offered by today's modern and reliable automatic gearboxes means the driver is more relaxed and ready for any challenges ahead.