United Kingdom

Electric cars will kill off changing gear, so should you ditch manual driving?

Wow, it's as simple as driving a Go-Kart, I remember saying a few years ago when my now wife returned home with an automatic Ford Fiesta.

She had lived in Australia for nearly a year and had become used to an auto gearbox. She didn't see the point of returning to the manual life back in Britain.

I was sceptical. Weren't automatic cars just for lazy, rubbish drivers? 

Manual is king – after all, the majority learn in a manual car, then buy a manual car, and petrolheads tell you real driving involves chnaging gear, thus a manual car is the best personal transport tool to get from A to B.

Automatic cars, there must be some catch…

My gateway automatic: Our trust Ford Fiesta was nippy, nimble and a joy to drive

That was soon blown out of the water for me as I approached a roundabout in the Fiesta for the first time and realised just how much more thinking time, and zip, I had in an automatic.

Since then, I've fallen in love with automatic driving and found it made navigating overseas motoring in the US and Italy far easier. Press the ignition button, go from P to D or R and foot down. 

When the Fiesta was ditched for a bigger vehicle for our growing family, the only option was an automatic replacement.

Now, diehard petrolheads I know will be reading this with a look of horror – including This is Money editor and old school hot hatch Peugeot 205 GTI-owner Simon Lambert and I can only apologise if this is just too upsetting to read.

But, as someone who doesn't fall into this category and likes the easy life, I cannot imagine ever going back to a clunky manual car.

In recent times, we've had a huge push to electric cars. Wherever you stand on them, it's clear the technology is improving as more manufacturers pile money into research and development.

This means prices should hopefully come down as more adoption is taken up, and a better charging infrastructure – in fact, a new super forecourt in Braintree is only 20 minutes away from my home.

However, something that I don't think the general public have given much thought to is the fact all mass-production electric cars have a one-speed automatic transmission. 

That means no changing gears. It's simply automatic driving.

Buy an electric car? You'll be driving an automatic. And at some point soon, you are unlikely to have much of a choice about this.

So have we already seen the beginning of the end of the manual gearbox and for the vast majority of people, does that even matter. Consumer Trends looks at whether automatic cars have already been taking over in recent years and what the future holds for driving.

'I hate driving…'

I have lost count in recent years of the number of times someone has told me they hate driving, especially those who live in London, or haven't driven a car for years, and find themselves out of practice.

Try an automatic, is my usual response. A friend I said this to last summer took my advice and revealed a little while after that she'd done just that, and wouldn't go back.

Meanwhile, an older family member, who broke her left wrist a few years ago found driving painful when she recovered thanks to changing clunky gears and was set to give it up.

Again, my response? Try an automatic. She did just that and hasn't looked back.

There are statistics that back up the adoption of automatic models. 

Around two in five new cars registered in 2017 were automatics according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The figure is double that of a decade before.

Meanwhile, the much maligned British driving test has also seen a surge in people heading down the automatic route. 

Perhaps it's the fear of stalling or those dreaded hill-starts.

It means, of course, they will only be able to drive an automatic car in the future, but that seems to be less and less of a problem, given the choice and drive for electric.

Automatic boom: The number of automatic tests has nearly tripled in just eight years, DVSA data shows

The number of automatic driving tests has nearly tripled in just eight years according to DVSA data.

There were 202,506 of them in 2019/20 (year to end March 2020) compared to 70,429 in 2011/12. Meanwhile, the number of tests taken overall - both automatic and manual - has stayed broadly the same at 1.6million. 

It means roughly 13 per cent of tests in the most recent set of data was for an automatic, compared to 4.5 per cent in 2011/12. 

This suggests that future drivers are happy to embrace a future without being allowed to drive manual.

It suggests a chunk of people don't care for clutch control and changing gear. 

It's worth pointing out, however, that the pass rate is far lower for automatics, perhaps suggesting a less confident driver.

Going automatic: The RAC says many of its vans are now automatic offering improved economy and lower running costs

Misty-eyed for manuals?

Rod Dennis, RAC spokesman, reckons that the day of the manual driving test are numbered.

He told me: 'While manual gearboxes still dominate today, arguably the writing is on the wall for them as electric cars gain popularity.

'And in a strange way, as the rise of single-gear cars becomes unstoppable, there's a chance drivers will end up getting rather misty-eyed about "manuals".

As the rise of single-gear cars becomes unstoppable, there's a chance drivers will end up getting rather misty-eyed about 'manuals'.

Rod Dennis - RAC 

'After all, switching up and down the gears has been an integral part of driving – and learning to drive – for many of us for so long, and is one of the main ways we feel in control of the car.

'The incredibly smooth delivery of power from electric motors, while no less satisfying, is quite a different experience entirely.'

It is likely that one day in the near future, all manual cars will be labelled as classics. 

Rod also points out that more than half of the RAC's patrol vans are now fitted with automatic gearboxes, and that proportion is increasing all the time.

He adds: 'They offer a smoother and more comfortable driving experience for our patrols, improved economy and, interestingly, have lower running costs as there is less to maintain. So the fuel and environmental benefits of automatics is clear.'

Bigger outlay: Automatic cars are a little pricier than their manual counterparts - but worth the extra cash in my opinion. Pictured: A VW Golf

The cons

Automatic cars tend to cost around £1,000 more than their manual counterparts.

For instance, a 2.0-litre diesel VW Golf in the mid-spec 'Style' trim level costs £26,545 with a six-speed manual or £28,045 with the seven-speed DSG automatic.   

Autos also typically cost a little more to insure, because of the larger cost of fixing the gearbox if something does go wrong.

But as Rod points out, with the car doing the work and getting you into the right gear quicker, the fuel economy tends to be slightly better which could balance costs out.

Also, it can be hard to get used to an automatic and go back to manual. This can be tricky in a situation such as hiring a car abroad – depending on where you are.

In the US, pretty much all cars are automatic so the cost and choice is not a problem. In Europe, the reverse is true, so it can cost a little more for an automatic hire car.

But that's where my list ends. Personally, I think trying an automatic is the perfect segway into electric cars later in the decade.

It is also worth pointing out that while autonomous vehicles are in their infancy too, that has little to no driver input – just because you're not changing gears in an automatic, it doesn't mean you're not still doing most of the work and it's not enjoyable.

Not that I think there is much joy of driving to be had in 2021 Britain... 

Traffic, middle-lane motorway hoggers, speed cameras, box junction fines, horrid A-roads, horrid B-roads, potholed rural roads… it's time to embrace the new Go-Kart era, get from A to B safely and easily, and put those images of wind-in-the-hair driving in convertibles on beautiful tree-lined roads from the 1960s away.

The past is manual. The future is automatic.

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