Voices

Paddle shifters are a waste of time…

These days automatics can change gear for you better than ever before, so D is no longer for Dunce. So, are paddle shifters a waste of time?

THERE ARE VERY few situations outside of high performance driving (on, or off-road) where you’d need (as opposed to want) to take control. These situations include descending long, steep hills where you’d select a lower gear, and moving off on very slippery surfaces like icy roads.

So if you are going to take control of an automatic transmission by yourself the first thing to know is that you aren’t changing gears when using paddle shifters. You are asking the computer to change gears, and the computer may or may not grant your wish. Try and change down too early and the computer will say no, perhaps even if changing down won’t over-rev the engine.

The computer may also automatically shift up for you if you hit the rev limiter, instead of bouncing off the limiter. It may also also downshift if you floor the accelerator and there’s enough rev range, even if you’ve manually selected a particular gear. This is what we mean by the automatic transmission not really allowing the same control over the car as the manual, even when you’ve selected ‘manual’ mode.

If your car does offer control over the gears then there’s a few different designs to choose from. The most common is moving the auto gearshift to select the next higher or lower gears in sequence. For a while there were two methods – gearlever forwards to change up and back to change down, and the exact opposite. Fortunately, everyone now seems to be falling into line with backwards to change up, forwards to change down. Except for Jeep/Mercedes who have left/right for up/down.

The other big option here is paddle shifts which can be operated without taking your hands off the wheel. There are two types – those that are fixed to the wheel, and rotate with it, and those that are fixed to the steering column and do not rotate with the wheel. Examples of the former are Subaru, BMW and Land Rover. Examples of the latter are Nissan, Ferrari, Volkswagen and Renault (but don’t hold me to the fact that every one of their models follows that convention). It is true F1 cars have paddles that move with the steering “wheel”, but given their total steering wheel movement is about 120 degrees either way it doesn’t really matter for them and in general, “because racecar” does not always apply logically to roadcars.

So which is best – fixed paddles or rotational paddles?

It’s a matter of preference really, but let me throw in some ideas. First, for off-road vehicles you definitely want paddles that do not move with the steering wheel, because you may well have an full turn of lock on and need to change gear. Which is hard when you have to remember where the gearshift has moved to. For sportscars on racetracks I think it matters much less because your hands never leave quarter to three anyway. But I’d still rather have the shifters fixed to the column for those occasions where you’re dealing with lots of opposite lock and need to change gear, for example coming out of a second gear corner on a dirt course shifting to third as it opens out – on a road track you’d have half a lock of turn on, on dirt you might have the same but it could be opposite lock. However, many, but not all cars with paddle shifts can also change gear using the gearlever which solves the problem, although expect that capability to disappear over time.

The final note on paddle shifters is that my experience is that everybody tries them for five minutes – then they’re never touched again because you can’t do a better job than the computers for daily driving and taking manual control for mundane motoring is not fun, so it doesn’t actually matter what system you have, you’ll never use it. But I am willing to be corrected… see you in the comments.

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20 Comments

  1. JoeR_AUS
    October 14, 2014 at 3:44 pm — Reply

    Its about driver engagement!

    A lot of people drive their vehicle but are not fully mentally engaged in what they are doing. eg this is why motorcycle riders get so annoyed with motorists because on a motor bike you need to be fully involved and most motorist are floating along….

    So, I have yet to see a automatic transmission that can read the road ahead and traffic to prepare the car in the right gear, lets not confuse rapid changing gearboxes that can respond for no better work, lazy drivers.

    You see it all the time, red light up ahead the motorist drives up to them and brakes hard. A engaged driver is off the throttle way before every one else, most probable in neutral, a auto driver is if off throttle coasting a DSG well there stuck in gear (except for some diesels with coasting function) and drive up to the red lights.

    So, how does paddles help, for most it does not but for some we use them every day!

    • Robert
      October 14, 2014 at 7:20 pm — Reply

      Joe – you need to drive a Rolls Royce which uses GPS data to shift gears ahead of time. That’ll be coming to other cars soon.

      As for getting the car into the right gear, well the modern adaptive automatic (check back shorty for an article on that) shifts down as the car slows down, selects lower gears for descents and is generally doing a better job than the human.

      If people aren’t noticing red lights till late that’s nothing to do with the gearbox or paddles.

      We don’t think paddles help. They are redundant except for specific high-performance driving situations, and the rest of the time they’re a novelty that drivers quickly lose interest in.

      But, if anyone really does use paddles please comment!

      • JoeR_AUS
        October 14, 2014 at 11:10 pm — Reply

        You and I on different pages.

        After I wrote the above, I drove 20km in traffic (Sydney) in a DSG equiped car. I was shifting manual all the time, While trolling in traffic I kept the car in 2, the traffic would accelerate and i would drive at a consistant speed (if in auto mode it would pick up a gear) I would break about 1/4 of the times of the car in front of me.

        There is no way a automatic with adaptive or GPS can read the traffic and what the drivers ahead are doing, it would need radar and brake light monitor and be checking a line of cars, meanwhile take into the logic the gradient and what opportunities existed in the right and left lane adjacent to the one your in.

        I think you under estimate the brain and the adaptive processes and expereince that makes decisions but most drivers are not fully engauged while driving. You only need to look at the NHTSA research into inattention, quote “80% of collisions and 65% of near crashes have some form of driver inattention as contributing factors (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2010)”

        So, you can see why Manufacturers are developing lane departure warning, auto braking and auto driving as most people are not up to it. So paddles are giving control back to the driver but the reality is most drivers are not fully engaged to utilise the technology and get any benefit from it, so yes they dont help

        🙂

        • Robert
          October 15, 2014 at 9:20 am — Reply

          OK so you’re using lower gears as a means of braking earlier. I’d argue that, to use your point, better observation means the extra braking via the engine is not necessary. You may be braking less, but you will be using more fuel and placing extra load on the engine.

          There’s also a safety argument because your brakelights aren’t illuminating yet your car is slowing. A low-risk driving technique is to manage the gap behind by giving the driver behind plenty of notice you’re slowing down.

          • JoeR_AUS
            October 15, 2014 at 9:33 am

            Traffic is like a rubber band it stretches and contracts, so if you drive at a consistant speed (not the same speed) and hold a gear you drive smoother and are less on the throttle and less on the brakes which uses less fuel The Cars behind adapt that you don’t accelerate and come to sudden halt all the time.

            Hasta la vista

        • October 15, 2014 at 9:27 am — Reply

          Hi Joe, You’re absolutely right. 99.9% of drivers aren’t actually engaged in driving when they’re, well, driving. They’re checking their phones, they’re watching the person in the car beside them, they’re applying make-up, changing radio stations, yelling at said radio or other drivers … I see it all on my 200km round trip to the office and back home.
          I also have a DSG-equipped car but find I can control it just fine with the throttle and the brake – and by knowing just how the transmission responds to the brakes and throttle I’m able to connect with it as well as if I chose to flick the shifter forwards or backwards, more so, actually… I’ve never even used the manual shift function. I think one of the main problems is that people don’t take enough time to get to know their car. Yes, I know that sounds a little touchy-feely, but if you take some to get a handle on how your vehicle’s transmission behaves, be it auto or manual you can drive a lot more smoothly… and with a number of reports suggesting the more connected we make our cars, the more distracting we make them, maybe we should be removing technology from them instead of adding it in?
          Drivers should be encouraged to concentrate on the task at hand, not on whether they can update their FB status by voice… looks like I’ve gone off topic a little. Ooops.
          On paddle shifters … while at the launch of the BMW M3 the journo I shared with opted to use the paddles … now, he was definitely engaged in trying to change gear, but he was also very distracted by it, trying to force the transmission into the wrong gear at the wrong time. So, is it less a case of paddle shifters making for engagement and more a case of those drivers who take the time to learn their car and how to use the paddles will be more engaged in driving when using them? Cheers Isaac (editor).

        • October 15, 2014 at 10:11 am — Reply

          Hi Joe, You’re absolutely right. 99.9% of drivers aren’t actually engaged in driving when they’re, well, driving. They’re checking their phones, they’re watching the person in the car beside them, they’re applying make-up, changing radio stations, yelling at said radio or other drivers … I see it all on my 200km round trip to the office and back home.
          I also have a DSG-equipped car but find I can control it just fine with the throttle and the brake – and by knowing just how the transmission responds to the brakes and throttle I’m able to connect with it as well as if I chose to flick the shifter forwards or backwards, more so, actually… I’ve never even used the manual shift function. I think one of the main problems is that people don’t take enough time to get to know their car. Yes, I know that sounds a little touchy-feely, but if you take some to get a handle on how your vehicle’s transmission behaves, be it auto or manual you can drive a lot more smoothly… and with a number of reports suggesting the more connected we make our cars, the more distracting we make them, maybe we should be removing technology from them instead of adding it in?
          Drivers should be encouraged to concentrate on the task at hand, not on whether they can update their FB status by voice… looks like I’ve gone off topic a little. Ooops.
          On paddle shifters … while at the launch of the BMW M3 the journo I shared with opted to use the paddles … now, he was definitely engaged in trying to change gear, but he was also very distracted by it, trying to force the transmission into the wrong gear at the wrong time. So, is it less a case of paddle shifters making for engagement and more a case of those drivers who take the time to learn their car and how to use the paddles will be more engaged in driving when using them? Cheers Isaac (editor).

          • JoeR_AUS
            October 15, 2014 at 10:44 am

            You reply reminds me of the relationship humans can have with a mechanical object, in this case a car. You learn to interface with the car and its controls and make things happen seamlessly, which you mentioned in your round trip to the office. Most never get it.

            Whats interesting is different vehicles makes you drive differently. I once watched a Ducati accelerate from a round about and I could hear the engine just getting into its torque band when another driver pulled across the front of the bike with serious consequences. I am sure that if the gearing had been higher and thus the speed lower or the torque band lower the rider would of not had a accident. It was not the rider fault but he was trying to surf the torque band and hear that noise.

            In my own little world I drive two DSG, 1 Auto and 2 manuals and its interesting that even on the same roads I drive the cars differently. For 4 months I had the exact same car, one with manual and one with auto and it really made me appreciate what a torque converter does for low rpm torque and easy of drive ability. Also the advantages of auto on a turbo engine when you can shift gears without lifting the throttle (part).

            I with you more connected cars are not adding drivers just distracting them, I don’t even like talking when I am driving…

            As for the M3, I have driven quite high performance cars but it takes longer to learn them and I would guess the paddles would be useless for me as well, it would need time, lots 🙂

            Thanks for your reply

  2. Doug Mullett
    October 14, 2014 at 11:01 pm — Reply

    I use paddles when descending hills (as per the owner’s manual, but too few read it) and in heavy traffic on straight suburban roads. It does change very quickly (as quick as a manual change) and means i’m in control at all times.
    For spirited driving on gravel, TC off, paddles on and GO!

    • October 15, 2014 at 9:16 am — Reply

      Hi Doug, what sort of car?

    • Robert
      October 15, 2014 at 9:17 am — Reply

      I’m with you for the gravel Doug, really important not to have a well-meaning but wrong gearshift if you’re trying to balance the car.

      Modern adaptive autos can now sense hills, but not all do it well or select a low enough gear. They are also now usually quicker to change than manuals.

      Why do you use it on straight suburban roads, and which car are you driving?

      • Doug Mullett
        October 15, 2014 at 9:39 am — Reply

        Commodore VZ SV6.
        I use it going down Portrush Rd in Adelaide (don’t live there, but visit frequently) in peak hour. Finer control as gradients cause a speed increase when in “D” and too many roadside cameras – plus brakes are used too often by those who don’t drive smoothly.
        Also great for going down SE Freeway – set cruise to speed, paddle-select gear and go down in full control and no burning brakes (which I regularly smell!).
        I also drive a purely manual car and two motorcycles (250 and 650).

        • Robert
          October 15, 2014 at 10:00 am — Reply

          Yep using lower gears on hills (or windy roads) definitely pays dividends. I remember coming back from Cape York being passenger with a young driver who was constantly running wider on hairpins. Fixed the problem by locking in a lower gear.

  3. mavstar
    October 15, 2014 at 5:34 pm — Reply

    We have two cars; mine has paddles and her’s doesn’t. Keep going for them in the family truckster and they’re never there 🙁 Really like them for having the occasional fang, the country road overtake and downhill engine braking.

  4. oscaroo
    December 1, 2014 at 8:11 pm — Reply

    I used the paddle shifters in the XV to make the gearbox stay on 1 when on deep sand, otherwise the XV slows down and gets stuck.

  5. chow
    October 27, 2015 at 2:23 am — Reply

    have 120i E82 and use the pedal shifters all the time, jump of the line on lights, then slow down the acceleration so that i dont get flashed; changing lanes, use that extra bit of rev without accelerating. i find it quite useful 🙂

    • October 30, 2015 at 9:42 am — Reply

      Depends on the car and the driver as to whether they’re useful or not.

  6. Dave G
    April 7, 2017 at 5:01 pm — Reply

    Some people actual like driving cars, therefore paddle shifters can add to the pleasure. Not everything has to be completely automated (so you can play with your phone instead of driving).

  7. chris
    December 20, 2019 at 12:43 am — Reply

    for most drivers and most of the time auto trans programs are fine for ordinary transportation. but there is a need for trans control such as hills, snow, ice, mud etc where a lower gear selection is an advantage be it by paddles, gear lever etc. ALSO: not all trans computer programming is so great! Some are better than others. A lot of overreving etc. you need control some times. That comment above about engine braking and brake lights is bogus! YOU NEVER ENGINE BREAK WITHOUT FIRST ENGAGING THE FOOT BRAKE AT LEAST 50%+++!!! Moving along, for spirited driving you can always get more out of any vehicle engine by managing the transmission of power thru even the simplest of transmissions.

  8. Jim
    April 30, 2020 at 10:14 am — Reply

    I am driving a paddle shift turbo charged Ford Fusion and well, first of all the Ford Fusion even though it is nice was a mistake and the paddles was mistake number 2. ( and I mean Number 2 ). Anyway my point here is depends on what you want the car for. Cruise around paddle shifting, take off at the light and hit your paddle shift on a straight away see how fast you can go or do enjoy a fun drive on a back road, cornering, gear changing roads. Paddles just doesn’t cut it. Downshift ( it thinks about it ) paddle up ( it thinks about it ) I am glad the engineers seem to have made the paddle to shift when the RPM’s are at specifics but that makes them in control of my car. At least I have noticed specific RPM’s for upshift and down shift. If I am stupid enough to shift way out of RPM range then I shouldn’t be driving. But if I am coming into a turn a little fast I want to push the clutch in tap/hit the brakes and down shift at the apex of the turn and not wait for the car to decide to change the gear or even let me disengage the transmission. Frustrated Paddle shift ( my own fault ) 🙁 I don’t know maybe I am full of the number 2 choice I made a year ago but I can’t wait to get back to a manual.

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper