Driving a Stick Shift: The Ultimate How-To Guide

 Why Driving a Manual Car Will Give You a Leg Up on Your Robotics Career

Self-driving cars are expected by many to be available in the coming years. A short time afterward this technological leap, learning how to drive may become an outdated skill. According to Elon Musk, the polymath entrepreneur and founder of Tesla, cars will soon become humans' personal taxis -- driving us around more safely, and allowing us to focus on other tasks. 

At Knovva Academy, we love thinking about technology and the future. But, we also believe that learning established skills allow people to deepen their understanding of the world. Plus, these skills can teach people some pretty cool tricks! So, even as the age of self-driving cars fast approaches, it's important to know how to drive a manual car.

Understanding how a manual car works also helps anyone interested in engineering. As you go through this guide, you’ll see that the considerations for driving a manual car apply to any project that has spinning axles -- like robotics. Anyone who understands how to operate a manual car can better appreciate those often ignored procedures performed by an automatic transmission.

First we’ll go through the basics, and then we’ll share some expert tricks.

How to Drive a Manual Car: Parts & Terms

Engine: Traditionally engines work by combustion, moving pistons up and down, which then spin an axle. New models, such as electric cars, create the spinning motion differently, but in order to understand how to drive a manual car, the important feature of the engine is its ability to cause an axle to spin -- think of that small rod connecting two pedals on a bicycle.

Gears: Between the axle that the engine spins, and the axle that the car's wheels spin on, there are different sized gears that the driver can choose from. Again, think of a bicycle with many sized gears that the chain can jump between.  Knowing which gear to choose will be discussed further on, but for now, it’s important to think understand the main point for choosing which gear is a question of power and efficiency. A useful rule of thumb is that the bigger the gear the more power needed to accelerate the car. 

Clutch: The clutch is that third petal beside the gas and brake pedals. Clutches are only found in manual cars. They give the driver the ability to disengage the gears from the engine. So, if you press down on the clutch, then the axle of the engine spins disconnected from anything, and will not help propel the wheels (or the car). When the clutch is up, one of the gears is connecting the axle of the engine to the axle of the wheels.

Gear-stick: The gear-stick is often referred to as the “stick”. It can be anything from a long stick to a small nub on the driver’s right side. The stick allows the driver to choose a gear. The number of gears differ from car to car, usually ranging between 5 and 6 (though some older cars only have 3), with a specific gear designated for reverse. 

Tachometer: The tachometer is the technical name for the gauge on the dashboard that shows the rpm (rotations per minute) of the engine. This gauge only shows the engine’s axle rpm, and doesn’t really tell you anything about the axle that’s attached to the wheels. This gauge helps people visualize the speed of the axle spinning with the engine. There is usually a red section to show when the driver risks overheating the engine. (In the expert tricks section of this article, you’ll see how the tachometer is mostly for manual newbies).

“Stalling”: To stall the car is to force it to overexert itself. When stalled, the engine will shut down, and the driver will need to restart the engine with the key. Stalling usually indicates that a driver is inexperienced with driving a stick shift.

Manual Driving: Core Concepts

Before actually trying to drive a car, think through these two considerations, and try discussing them with an experienced driver. Here are the two basic considerations for driving a manual car:

1- Power: how to maintain enough power to maneuver or to move the car safely. Here are two situations that can be dangerous if the driver is not maintaining the right amount of power: (1) you won’t be able to accelerate quickly enough to avoid an accident, (2) you won’t be able to move the car uphill suddenly.

2- Efficiency: how to run the car efficiently. Efficiency is a bit of a relative term here, but it arises from choosing which gears to engage the engine with. In general, the bigger the gear, the lower the engine’s rpm, and thus less gas is needed to maintain a given speed. Yet, lower gears tend to give the driver more power.

The basic hurdles of driving a manual car: 

1- Getting it into first: The first thing that the new manual driver needs to learn is how to get the car into gear.

  • Find a flat place to practice.
  • Leaving your foot on the brake the whole time, start the engine, move the stick into neutral (between all the gears), and disengage the parking brake. (The regular brake should be engaged this entire time.)
  • Then, push down the clutch, and put the stick into first gear.
  • Now comes the tricky part that needs the most practice: getting the car into first gear without stalling. Lift your foot off the brake, and then slowly balance these two opposing motions: letting your left foot up on the clutch (engaging the gear) while pressing on the gas with your right foot. There is no exact science to this balance of pressing the gas and letting up the clutch at the same time. Each car is different, and even the exact same car model can have a different wear on the clutch. This step usually takes people the longest amount of time to practice, so stick with it!
  • Once you’ve mastered this, try to find an open location with an incline where there will be no other cars, and try to get the car into first gear again. (Hint: the incline will make it much more difficult.)

2- Braking: Not quite the same as in an automatic car.

  • Once your driving the car around, you’ll notice that every time you use the brake pedal, you’ll need to press down the clutch as well.
  • If you forget to press the clutch when braking, you will stall your car. (Nobody wants to restart their engine in the middle of the road -- again, you’ll look and feel like a newbie).

2- Knowing when to switch gears: Now that you’ve got the car into gear and you know how to brake, it’s time to hit the road.

  • Once in first gear, you’ll notice that the rpm gauge will go up pretty high at relatively low speeds. That means that you need to shift to a higher gear.
  • For most cars, you will want to switch the gears somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000 rpm, but the car and the road’s inclination can change everything, so it’s better to learn with an experienced driver.
  • In order to switch gears, press down the clutch, and then slide the stick up one gear, and release the clutch. (This whole step needs to be done rather quickly, so practice as much as you can with only first gear before moving onto the roads and trying to switch to higher gears).
  • By the way, the gears are designed to be used incrementally. If you try to jump gears, you will probably lose most, if not all, of the car’s power.

3- Parking the car: As opposed to cars with automatic transmission, you must use the parking brake with manual cars.

  • When in the parking position, press the clutch, and shift the stick to the neutral position.
  • Then pull up on the parking brake.


Expert Tips: Driving Stick Like a Pro

1- Downshifting: One of the signs of an expert is downshifting.

  • Downshifting is slowing the car down, smoothly and purposefully, by shifting down a gear instead of using the break.
  • When you anticipate that you’ll need to slow down, just press the clutch and then ease down into a lower gear.
  • If you let up the clutch too quickly or try to engage too small of a gear, you’ll rev the engine too much, and possibly lose control and cause damage to the engine.
  • This expert tip requires practice, but once you master it you’ll be saving on brake pads, and feeling like you’re in total control of the car! 

2- Leaving the car in gear when parked: Most people suggest leaving the car in gear when parked.

  • The idea is that in the rare occurrence that the parking brake fails, the gear may stop the vehicle from rolling away.
  • The trick is to notice what the slope of your parking spot is, and then choosing the correct gear.
  • When parked on an incline, leave the car in first gear; when on a decline, park the car in reverse. (Anything flat matters less, but people tend to use first gear.) 

3- Learn to feel the engine: you’ll never look at the rpm gauge again!

  • Using numbers makes everything easier, so it’s no surprise that people beginning to drive manual glance at the tachometer all of the time.
  • A part of learning to drive a manual car is engaging more with the engine -- in essence, you become one with the car. As you progress, try to pay more attention to how your body, and especially your feet, feel the engine’s vibrations, rather than the rpm gauge.

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