The motor trade has offered the choice between manual or automatic vehicles for decades. Back in 1950, British automobile magazine ‘Autocar’ pondered how long it would be before automatic transmission vehicles would become as commonplace in Britain as they were in the United States.
Historically, manual gearboxes have held sway and still do, but according to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) their days could be numbered. The latest annual figures available from the DVSA reveal that manual is still the transmission of choice among learner drivers, with 1.6 million manual driving tests taken in 2019/20.
By comparison, the number of automatic driving tests taken in 2018/19 was just 185,043, but that figure represents an increase of 163% on the 70,429 automatic driving tests taken in 2011/12.
Furthermore, automatic vehicle sales increased by 70% in the decade to 2017, with automatic transmissions fitted to 40% of new vehicles sold in the same period.
In February 2020, the UK government brought forward the proposed ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles, including hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles from 2040 to 2035.
At that stage, only new electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles with automatic transmission will be available, so the transition for three pedals to just two is only likely to gather momentum in the next decade or so.
Learner drivers who pass a manual driving test are licensed to drive both manual and automatic vehicles, while those who pass an automatic driving test are only licensed to drive automatic vehicles.
Nevertheless, despite Stuart Masson, editor of ‘The Car Expert’, calling an automatic transmission ‘the most efficient way to learn to drive’, the pass rate for the automatic driving test is just 39%, compared with 47% for the manual driving test.
The trend towards automatic vehicles, particularly among slightly older learner drivers who are less concerned with the nuts and bolts of driving has also been reported by driving school instructors.
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Ruedi Press, founder of YES! Driving School in Dorset said, ‘We could still fill many more diaries with automatics. Basically, the problem we are facing is not the interest from the learner side, but to get enough instructors to change to automatic.’
Of course, automatic vehicles are typically more expensive to buy and significantly more expensive to insure than their manual counterparts.
Insurance policy premiums reflect the cost of repairs or replacement parts, so it stands to reason that a more complex expensive automatic vehicle commands higher premiums.
According to a price comparison website, the price difference between insurance for automatic and manual vehicles increased from 5% to 21% between January 2018 and January 2020, with owners of automatic vehicles paying almost £100 more for an insurance policy on average.