Within the aviation community there’s a spirited debate about the term conventional landing gear. Traditionally, the term refers to tail dragger airplanes, those that have a tail wheel, like a Piper Cub, the Boeing B-17, and the Douglas DC-3. But since around the time of World War Two most aircraft have been manufactured with “tricycle landing gear” or a nose gear. Almost every airplane you see today is a tricycle with a nose gear; short of Home-built or other purpose-built aircraft (e.g., agricultural, aerobatics) you would be hard-pressed to find many airplanes with a tail wheel.

Yet despite the fact that most aircraft manufactured within the last half-century use tricycle/nose gear, the term “conventional landing gear” continues to apply to the tail wheel. This is confusing to people new to aviation; to them “conventional” is what they see out at the local airport every day like the Cessnas and Cirrus, or every airliner they’ll board, all of which have nose wheels. Yet that traditional term persists.

So it is with automatic transmissions in cars today. Mention “automatic transmission” to me (I’m approaching a half-century myself) and I immediately think of the old GM Hydramatic transmission, with a torque converter, an internal pump, clutches and bands, a valve body, etc.Those are truly your father’s automatic transmissions, the one where you moved the lever from “P” into “R” then “D” and then never touched it again except to put it back in “P” when you got home. Push the accelerator pedal to go; push the brake pedal to stop, no clutch pedal or shifter required.

On the other hand, mention “automatic transmission” to someone just learning to drive, and their mind may not necessarily turn to torque converters, valve bodies and such; they skip all those technicalities and go right to thinking “how do I go and stop, and do I have to touch the shifter again until I’m home?” Yet it’s quite possible that these new drivers are learning in automatically-shifting cars that, from an engineering perspective, have much more in common with the old “4-on-the-floor” than they do with Granddaddy’s Torque Flite.

We still call these new technologies “automatic transmissions”. But are they, really? What makes a transmission an “Automatic”?

Is simply the lack of a clutch pedal that makes something Automatic? If so, then what about the Formula One cars that do not have a clutch pedal, instead using an electronic button on the back of the steering wheel to activate the clutch? And what about before that manual button was required by the regs and they let the computer activate the clutch? Would you say that Formula One cars were/are using Automatic Transmissions?

Is an Automatic Transmission defined by a lack of a stick/shift lever that has to be rowed to manually select gears? If so, then that would again support the idea that Formula One cars use Automatic Transmissions, given their gears are selected using electronic “flappy-paddles” on the steering wheel instead of a shifter.

But if a Manual is all about having a clutch pedal and shift lever, then what about World Rally Championship cars that have sequential-shift gearboxes that don’t use a clutch between shifts? If you don’t have to use the clutch to shift, is that an Automatic? What about prior to 2011 when WRC cars were allowed to use those “flappy-paddle” selectors for their sequential-shift boxes instead of a gear lever; did Sebastian Loeb win numerous WRC championships with an Automatic Transmission?

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