So You Want to Save the Planet? Drive Stick

02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The green blogosphere is understandably reeling from the recently announced finding that our levels of global atmospheric CO2 are locked in for the next Millennium. From this point on, we can't reverse the damage -- we can only try to not make it worse. Obviously, we're aren't going to be able to turn the ship as fast as would be ideal, but there are some immediate steps we could take to avoid the iceberg (before the iceberg melts and turns New York City in Venice and Venice into Atlantis).

My focus is sustainable and advanced mobility: thinking about ways that we can move ourselves around in a more ecologically benign manner, and continue to do so in the future. At times, this area of R&D gets pretty esoteric. However, there are some pretty basic things that almost everyone can consider.

High on this list is carefully considering the type of car you drive, if you need to drive. From a sustainability perspective, the best car to drive is the car you're already driving. Sure, this is a balance; your old car may be generating an annoyance factor, spending too much time at the shop, failing to satisfy the needs of a growing family, costing you too much to operate, and so on. But if you can stick with the wheels you have, you're making a good sustainable judgment.

If you don't have any truly special requirements -- work on a farm, run a ranch, labor in the contracting business, and thus demand a big truck -- then aiming for high fuel-efficiency and low emissions makes sense. A list of the most fuel-efficient cars just came out. The gas-electric hybrid Prius leads the pack, but of course anyone who goes for a Prius needs to understand that they're paying a lot extra for the hybrid technology. The payoff is the greatly reduced emissions, but it's a premium.

You can still achieve some sustainable progress by buying a car that runs on gas, but that manages relatively high mileage. And you can max out your mileage by going for a "non option" option that isn't available on hybrids: a stick shift.

Everyone who learned to drive in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s knows that manual transmissions always get (slightly) better mileage that automatics. Of late, manuals have become increasingly rare. Almost all new cars and trucks come with autos. New designs -- six speeds, for example -- deliver better fuel economy than the older models, but they still can't beat the manual. Hybrids, by virtue of drivetrain management, can't really do stick.

But in the economy category, "standards" are still prevalent. They're also much more common outside the U.S. The mileage uptick isn't huge -- one or two more MPGs. But if you stretch that out over the life of the vehicle, you can achieve a moderate and appealing savings.

Plus, you can have more fun driving your car. This is why stick is the default option for sports cars, although F1 paddle-style shifters and various clutchless designs have become more prevalent these days. True, you will need to learn -- or relearn -- the slightly intricate dance among clutch pedal, brakes, throttle, and shifter. At one time, this was a rite of passage. Nowadays, however, you routinely encounter people who've never driven stick. It's not really that hard. Most folks could get it down in an afternoon or two on sparsely trafficked roads or a parking lot.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I don't currently drive stick, but I do drive an old car, and if I were buying a new car today, I'd gravitate toward a manual, as I have in the past.)

The key issue with sustainable mobility is for consumers to do something right now, and then do just a little bit more. So go for the more fuel-efficient car, if you can, and then tack on the extra MPGs by chosing the stick shift. This will in the end make you a better driver. You'll be in control of your car, managing the entire relationship between engine, transmission, and wheels. You'll be grabbin' gears, as they say in stock car racing (even if you're doing your grabbin' in Toyota Yaris).

Remember: There's no going back now -- from here on out, we have to make every effort to keep the climate situation from getting worse. Using your right arm and left foot when you drive is a place to start.