The advent of seven- and eight-speed transmissions has changed drivers’ interactions with their cars. In the old days, we could determine which gear we were in based on speed, engine note, and the tachometer; and, if we were lucky enough to be driving a car with a stick or an automatic featuring a manual-shifting function, we could make a decision as to which gear would be necessary for an upcoming stretch of road. It was all part of the fun. But automakers seemingly have determined that seven or eight gears aren’t enough. As have Chrysler and others, GM and Ford have decided it is a good idea to equip future cars and trucks with nine- and ten-speed automatics, and that’s just what they plan to do.

Both companies have announced the joint development of slushboxes with nine and ten speeds for all vehicle classes and for front- and rear-wheel-drive applications. The cooperation is supposed to lower the cost of development and testing; it follows previous cooperation that focused on the development of six-speed automatics for front-wheel-drive vehicles. That team effort resulted in the six-speed automatics fitted in “some of America’s favorite vehicles,” as the joint press release gushes. This includes some of America’s least exciting vehicles, such as the Ford Explorer and the Chevrolet Malibu.

Nine- and ten-speed transmissions allow engineers to optimize their engines for smaller sections of the rev band; they can oscillate around an engine’s optimal point of efficiency, as does a—loathsome—CVT. Says GM’s transmission guru Jim Lanzon, “We expect these new transmissions to raise the standard of technology, performance, and quality for our customers while helping drive fuel-economy improvements into both companies’ future product portfolios.”

While the hardware will be largely identical, both Ford and GM will produce the slushboxes in their own production facilities. And the software application will differ “to ensure,” in the words of Ford’s driveline chief engineer Craig Renneker, “that each transmission is carefully matched to the individual brand-specific vehicle DNA for each company.”

We’ll get a taste of the “tremendous benefits” over the next few years, and we can’t help but wonder whether Ford and GM will even bother to offer a manual function for these boxes anymore; it would be little more than a cruel joke. The case for the old-fashioned manual has just become a lot stronger.

By Jens Meiners

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