Driving a Stick Shift in a Rapidly Changing Energy Landscape

Vic Shao
2 min readNov 23, 2016

My parents ran a small business in the 80’s when I was a teenager in Virginia. One day when I got home from high school, there was a Mitsubishi Starion parked in the driveway. One of my dad’s customers couldn’t make payment, and offered the car as barter. My excitement quickly turned to dread, however, as I realized the car was a stick shift. I had just barely gotten my driver’s license and had no idea how to drive a manual car. “Figure it out,” my dad told me at the time. My family was barely scrapping by financially at the time, and figuring things out was a fairly common refrain.

What followed was weeks of rough starts and stalled engines experimenting on my own, but I eventually got the hang of it. I’ve owned many cars since then and tried all flavors of EVs, hybrids, and SUVs, but eventually I settled on an old Porsche 911 with manual transmission as my daily driver, and it is still what I drive today.

I’ve been asking myself “why” lately. I’m a reasonable, rational technology worker in Silicon Valley who champion innovation and change. The fact is, modern automatic transmission outperforms manual. In a drag race, I would lose in my car simply because my shifting reflexes are sluggish compared to a computer-controlled gearbox. A Tesla Model S crushes just about any gas-engine car, as it doesn’t even have a transmission. So why stick to my old 911? I’m finally recognizing “Nostalgia” as a force to be reckoned with in human decision making, and it may very well affect the energy transition.

I prefer stick shift because of total control of the driving experience in an evolving automotive landscape, and it brings back decades-old memories of my first car. It’s a powerful emotion that trumped the rational side of me, and I imagine others must also experience similar episodes when confronted with choices not just about cars, but energy. I’m old enough to remember burning coal for warmth in the wintertime and lugging around jugs of kerosene for cooking. Antiquated, dangerous, and grossly polluting, yes, but to the emotional side of our brains, old energy technologies represent control and comfort. It takes a conscious effort to evaluate the merit of solar, wind, and energy storage, to cast aside nostalgic biases and listen to our rational selves. While technologies are rapidly becoming better and cheaper than traditional fossil fuel generation, I recognize that it will still take longer than most people anticipate to go all-in on sustainability.

I, for one, think it’s time for a new car.