In the late ‘80s, Ferrari engineers — never shy about taking risks — installed small paddles flanking the steering wheels on Enzo’s Formula One race cars. The idea was to allow the driver to shift gears in a fraction of a second without letting go of the wheel.
The invention, known formally as the “semi-automatic gearbox” and informally as paddle shifters, revolutionized the world of motor sports.
And now they are moving from the fast track into the car pool lanes — whether drivers know what they are or not.
“While not every customer uses paddle shifters, they do offer a level of control and an experience that some enthusiasts strongly appreciate,” said Mark Dahncke, a spokesman for Audi of America.
The embellishments, made of plastic or metal, are attached to steering wheels or columns of more than 200 vehicles this year, compared with fewer than 70 in 2007, according to data from Edmunds.com, an automotive research firm. From Acura to Volvo, the paddles are standard equipment in most cases, or they can be added as an option. Some Mini Coopers have paddles, and they do show up in every automatic-equipped Audi and Mercedes-Benz sold in the United States.
For many carmakers, especially those that offer vehicles with sporting pretensions, paddle shifters are sort of the automotive equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses. But their usefulness during a commute is questionable.
Nick Richards, the product development communications manager for General Motors, said the data was clear: “Our research shows that customers with paddles use them rarely, with more than 62 percent saying they use them less than twice a year. When customers do use them, 55 percent say that it is for sporty driving situations.”
GM put paddles in several 2017 Cadillac models and in the Chevrolet Camaro. Ultraswank Bentleys have them, as do ultramainstream Toyota Camrys and even the 450-horsepower Ford F-150 Raptor super truck.
Cheryl Griffiths falls into the category of drivers who wonder what the fuss is about. As she shopped for a new Subaru Crosstrek SUV at Star Subaru in Queens, New York, she was surprised to learn that the truck had paddle shifters.
“A what?” she said. “I have no idea what those things are. I just drive the car.”
On the other hand, there is Fred Roberts.
Roberts, 71, might have considered a car with a manual transmission — he has owned Porsches with those — but his wife does not drive a stick. He chose instead a $74,000-plus 2017 Mercedes AMG E43 with a prodigious 396 horsepower and a nine-speed automatic transmission.
He also made sure it had paddles.
“I find the paddles very functional if you know how to use them,” he said. “I find you can get the ultimate speed out of the car using them. The shifting is very fast.”
By toggling out of the Drive position on the automatic and into manual mode, Roberts can hold to a higher engine rpm before shifting to a higher gear with the paddle, “but you have to be aware of how to use them, or you’ll blow up the car.”
A real estate broker from Manhasset, New York, Roberts said the only time he does not use paddles is when his wife is in the car. “She likes to hold hands,” he said.
In usual operation, the paddles are each marked with “+” sign or a “-” sign: Flicking the plus paddle (usually the paddle on the right) toward the driver nudges the gears up in sequence; the minus paddle lowers the gears, also sequentially. The flick sends a signal to the vehicle’s onboard computer to shift the gear. In a more advanced type of transmission, called the dual-clutch or twin-clutch, the new gear can be swapped as quickly as 100 milliseconds, a speed that can make all the difference in races that are sometimes decided by a second or less.
With manual transmissions rapidly evaporating from the automotive landscape in the United States, some car marketers say they see paddle shifters as a compromise.
Yet, to some old-school enthusiasts, who grew up driving manual cars with three pedals and a stick, the paddles are not much more than gimmicks. They see them as marketing ploys that give only the appearance of sportiness to a plain-vanilla sedan or a high-riding truck.
“The engagement — and by that, I mean my engagement — is not the same as with a manual,” said Daniel Pund, the deputy editor of Car and Driver magazine. The manual experience, he noted, “beyond that it takes coordination and more limbs to accomplish, is that when you’re done with your input, you’re immediately in the next gear. When you’re done with your input with a paddle shifter in a conventional automatic, you’re still waiting for the shift to happen.”
Carmakers install them, Pund said, “because they want to make sure you know it’s a sporty car. Even if it’s not.”
On that point, the two parties agreed. The gadgets “provide a premium image and a higher perception of a sporty vehicle,” said Ronnie Nomoto, the product planning manager for the Toyota Camry. Although there is additional cost to install paddle shifters, he said Toyota would continue to offer them because “our latest vehicle features study/focus groups of Camry owners survey showed nearly 35 percent have or want paddle shifters.”
It is not likely that the devices will be the focus of any radical changes, though, said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with Edmunds.
“Car companies have so many other things to focus on these days,” she said. Most commuters may find paddles a novelty and will be comfortable letting the automatic transmission do all the work.
“We like it easy in this country,” she said.