Would you think that an unexpected ban of a disruptive technology, particularly a ban imposed 20 years ago by a private race car administrative organization, could retard timely availability to consumers of sophisticated, high-performance automotive technology? Please hold that question while I digress for a few moments.
Car culture lives at the intersection of innovation, industry and regulation. From this spot, enthusiasts develop preferences and prejudices alike.
A kernel of axiomatic truth among many who drive their cars exuberantly is that, when possible, a manual transmission is essential. There are three elements undergirding this preference. The first is a belief that manual transmissions provide a driver with greater control over the drivetrain. The second is that, until very recently, manual transmissions tended to be more efficient, allowing for lighter engines that accelerate faster and get slightly better mileage.
The third element is not mechanical at all, it is cultural. In an era in which manual transmissions represent only a small fraction of all vehicles sold in the United States, a buyer’s preference for manual transmissions oft arises from a condition we will call “throwback authenticity.” This makes a very satisfying and low-budget snobbery available to anybody who chooses to drive a manual.
As a self-styled car enthusiast, one with a snobby history of seeking out manual transmissions whenever possible, I was dead-set on continuing to select my own gears. Then, last week, a sudden need for a new vehicle emerged. After ticking through my mental shortlist of desirable vehicles, I took a ride to my local Subaru dealership. Upon arrival, I was delighted to see, sitting front and center, the blue 2015 WRX for which I had made the trip.
I experienced utter disappointment upon finding that it was not a manual. Worse…it was not just any automatic, it was a nearly universally despised form of automatic known as CVT (continuously variable transmission).
My snob sense went off the chart and I became peevish. CVTs are known for being slow, unresponsive, dull and generally antithetical to all things performance. Still, I was coaxed into test driving the vehicle by the person who had given me a ride to the lot.
The test was brief but transformational. Impossibly, I was forced to reconcile myself to a new reality when, as I accelerated out of a corner, the transmission responded to inputs from the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters as fast as my fingers could muster a tug. When I hopped out of the car I was left wondering how in the world such a powerful anti-CVT narrative could ever have taken hold in my head.
Back to the intersection point of “innovation, industry and regulation”:
The innovation: CVTs do not have gears. Instead, inside of a CVT, there is a drive-belt positioned between a pair of pulleys. The significance of this is that there are an infinite combination of power-delivery settings between the two pulleys, hence the name “continuously variable.” By not having to change gears, there is less parasitic loss between the engine and the tires. The associated savings can manifest themselves in the form of increased miles per gallon. Further, a CVT is capable of keeping an engine operating in a specific manner (be it for economy or performance) all of the time, because there are no set gear ratios, allowing the engine to operate at peak efficiency for whatever purpose it is being used at that time.
Like many novel technologies, CVTs were temperamental in their initial applications. Early adapters were beset by frequent drive-belt failures, because the belt was made from rubber. Subsequent adapters found the CVT both reliable and economical, but unrewarding to drive, because of their prevalence in low-powered vehicles. By pairing the CVT to the Prius, the transmission became a lodestar of enthusiast disdain.
Industry’s role: CVTs found their first automotive application in a small Dutch make named DAF, an abbreviation of Van Doorne’s Trailer Factory (in Dutch: Van Doorne’s Aanhangwagen Fabriek). DAF was gobbled up by Volvo, which allowed the technology to gain widespread exposure.
In the early 1990s, CVTs came to the attention of teams competing at the highest level of racing in the world, Formula 1. Teams recognized that, since an engine is constantly accelerating and decelerating, it is rarely operating at its full potential. For an engine to operate at its full potential, it is necessary for it to hold its speed at the peak of its power – a feat that a CVT is uniquely suited to accomplish. To this end, a number of well-financed Formula 1 teams began to develop CVT transmissions with a belt strong enough to withstand the phenomenal power loads of a Formula 1 engine.
Racing regulation: By 1993, a number of teams were testing CVTs in their cars under race conditions. Unsurprisingly, because the engines were not wasting time or power revving up and down the unprofitable parts of their power-curves, the cars were fast…several seconds a lap faster than traditional transmissions.
The CVT cars were arguably too fast. Not because the cars or the drivers could not sustain the pace, but because they were able to seriously upset the competition’s ability to compete without them. For this reason, to preserve competitive balance, Formula 1’s governing body decided to ban the use of CVTs.
Banning the use of CVTs at the highest level of racing competition retarded the development of the technology. Formula 1 teams enjoy an unparalleled level of factory funding and support because the cars are excellent platforms from which speculative technologies may be proven and refined. Arguably, without a fair trial in the crucible of motorsports, CVTs were unable to realize their potential until decades later. The intervening decades of mediocrity spawned a legion of detractors, hence the existence of an anti-CVT narrative among the automotive press corps and the enthusiast crowd for whom they write.
The generally applicable lesson that can be induced from the CVT story is that the shadow cast by regulation, even by non-governmental bodies, can be long and profound. By prohibiting the use of a particular technology, as opposed to introducing regulations designed to shape outcomes more globally, Formula 1 sought parity in an overbroad and ineffective way (fittingly, Team Williams, the first team to develop a racing CVT, enjoyed an uninterrupted period of dominance even without the transmission).
An enthusiast, I remain. But, now I proudly drive a technology that was able to overcome the heavy hand of regulatory shortsightedness. I drive a CVT.