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Learning To Drive in A Manual? Is There Any Point?

By Tim Barnes-Clay | March 6, 2023

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It may not have crossed your mind, but the manual gearbox will soon disappear.

Learning To Drive in A Manual? Is There Any Point?

It may not have crossed your mind, but the manual gearbox will soon disappear.

Amidst the ever-changing automotive world, we've been through the rise and fall of diesel, then the rise of petrol-hybrids and now the growing emergence of all-electric cars. Yet, the transmissions underneath probably don't even occur to most of us.

But it’s true: the manual will be gone, as electric cars don't have conventional gearboxes, so, for all intents and purposes, they're all 'automatics’.

That is not to say they’re like the automatics we know today, though. They are single gear, so there are no gear changes even required.

Most hybrids are automatics, too.

As a result, you won't need a gear lever in the future. Instead, most electric cars have a selection of buttons to choose which direction you want to travel in. In fact, even some conventional automatic transmissions today have replaced the gear lever with buttons.

So, if you're about to start learning to drive or have kids who could be five, ten or even fifteen years away from getting behind the wheel, the above poses a big question: is there any point in learning to drive a manual car?

Those who take their driving test in a motor with an automatic transmission can pass and get a licence, just like those who take their test in a manual car. But, if you choose the former, you will only get an ‘automatic licence’.

You can tell if a licence is automatic by looking at the '12' column on the back of your driving licence photocard. If it has the number '78' listed in row 'B' (the row for cars), then this is the 'restriction code' on your licence for automatics. And that means you are forbidden from driving a car with a manual ‘box.

But, with the death of the manual seemingly just around the corner, is that a problem nowadays?

Well, there are a few things you might want to consider, so here’s our ‘Pro’ and ‘Cons’ list as to whether you should opt to learn in an automatic.

Pro: Automatics make life easier

Automatics are certainly easier to drive. Given that most modern manuals have six gears, think about how many gear changes you'd make on an average morning commute, for example.

Every gear change means pressing the clutch, moving the gear lever, then pulling the clutch back up, and by the time you've done that, it's time to do it all over again to change up again.

Automatics remove the hassle and do it all for you.

If you live in a city centre or busy town and will be doing a lot of stop-start traffic during rush hour, you might be grateful for not having to change gears constantly.

In addition, if you're a less confident driver, taking cog swaps out of the equation might reassure you of having one less thing to worry about.

Pro: There are far more automatics around today

If you go back to the early 2000s, most cars had manual gearboxes. Typically, only the more luxurious end of the market, such as Jags and Mercs, would have autos outselling manuals.

That is not to say they weren’t available in average cars, but they were rarer and inferior to today's automatics.

But automatics started to increase in popularity, and by 2010, they could be found in around a quarter of all cars on the road.

That number has now passed the 50% mark, meaning there are more automatic cars on the road than manuals. As a result, there’s far more choice.

Pro: There’s more space for your left leg

If you drive an automatic, you only have an accelerator or a brake pedal (yes, some will provide a third pedal which replaces the conventional handbrake, but it’s usually a lot smaller and hidden out of the way, so we won’t count that).

This means you have the space where the clutch pedal would have been to rest your left foot instead, which is often more helpful than you might think.

In some manual cars, you’ll get this space anyway, but in some vehicles, there isn't enough room, so you either must rest your foot against the clutch pedal without pressing it or try to position your size eleven underneath it.

This can be frustrating on longer journeys when heading down a motorway, and you don't need to change gears for the next hour or so.

Pro: Automatics tend to be more economical

It hasn’t always been the case, but these days automatics can optimise gear changes to ensure they use as little fuel as possible.

Mind you, the reverse is also true – but this is often a choice you’d make and be able to adjust at the touch of a button.

Many automatics today offer various driving settings. The basic premise is you'll have an 'Eco' mode which will change up early to save fuel, a 'Sport' mode which will change up late to increase performance and a 'Normal' setting somewhere in between.

These modes and the names they’re given differ from car to car, with some controlled by pushing a button and others via infotainment touchscreens, but you get the idea.

While you could theoretically replicate the same effect in a manual car, it will likely require too much focus to do this reliably.

Pro: You may need fewer lessons

There is a lot to get your noggin around when you first start driving a car. And having spent years in the passenger seat, you’ll be so used to it that it can feel strange to be in control of the vehicle.

Nevertheless, one of the biggest challenges to getting your head around it is using a clutch pedal and learning about its 'biting point'. We have all stalled a car before – but you'll likely discover how not to do that pretty quickly.

None of that is a consideration in an automatic, and therefore, it stands to reason you'll need fewer lessons than if you were learning to drive a manual.

Pro/Con: Manuals are the traditional preference of the performance enthusiast.

Driving enthusiasts traditionally prefer manual cars because it gives the driver greater control. Performance cars used to pretty much all come with manual gearboxes.

Want to rev the engine higher? You can do that in a manual and delay changing up. Want better acceleration? You can do that in a manual and change it down.

However, this could also be a pro in favour of the automatic because they’re come a long way in recent years to the point that performance cars now have them. Many automatics give you almost as much control as manual nowadays, enabling you to delay changing up until you pull the gear lever to the right or push the lever to the left to change down.

If you've seen paddle shifters behind the steering wheel of some cars, then these do much the same thing. They are known as semi-automatics, which you'll still be allowed to drive, although semi-automatics nearly always have a fully automatic mode.

Some automatics nowadays will hold their gears and, with the advent of touchscreens and infotainment systems, performance can often be pre-selected from menus, especially on more expensive performance-focused models.

Con: Manuals give you more control

For the same reason as above, driving enthusiasts want a level of control that automatics, certainly in the 'olden days', couldn't provide.

But this can apply to everyday driving, too. Automatics aren't perfect, and sometimes, if you're accelerating but know you'll need to slow down imminently as you approach a junction, you'll eventually come across a situation where the automatic changes up just as you apply the brakes to slow down, causing a jerking motion.

Likewise, you might find that you're in third gear and the automatic changes up to fourth just as you approach a steep hill, and you start losing speed, causing the gearbox to change back down to third.

Neither of these issues is a big problem, but you won't get that in a manual car as you'll instinctively know there's no point in changing up in the first place.

Con: Automatics tend to be more expensive

Most manufacturers will add a premium if you want an automatic. You would imagine it would be the other way around, given they don't have to provide a clutch pedal. But automatic gearboxes are more complex and have software inbuilt to handle gear changes for you, so they’re more complicated to design and produce.

As a result of this additional expense, not only will you find you’re paying more to buy the car in the first place, but your insurance premium will likely be slightly higher, too. In addition, if you have to get your gearbox serviced, this could be pricier.

Con: Finding an instructor could be more challenging

Most driving instructors in the UK will teach you in a manual car. While some instructors will do automatics, they are still few and far between.

It might not be an issue, but it's worth considering that you'll have far less choice, certainly for the foreseeable future.

If you’re lucky enough to have parents willing to teach you in an automatic, you could slap some 'L' plates on it, but we'd advise against learning to drive this way.

Firstly, having proper lessons with a qualified instructor who, let's remember, is not just teaching you how to drive the car but is also preparing you for the standards you'll need to pass the actual driving test is important. 

And secondly, you won’t be able to use your parents’ automatic for your lessons with a driving instructor, as instructors have ‘dual control’ cars, meaning they’ll also have a brake pedal (plus a clutch in a manual car) on the passenger side, where they’ll sit.

Con: Manuals aren’t the chore you think they are

While automatics offer more convenience, don’t be fooled into thinking the first ‘pro’ on our list painted the picture that manuals are a faff to drive.

You quickly get so used to moving the clutch pedal and gear lever that you hardly even notice you’re doing it.

Con: You can’t predict the future

We started this article by saying that manuals would soon die out. And, if the current trajectory continues, then that’s very probable. But who knows what the next 20 years will bring?

While all-electric cars are automatics, there are a tiny number of exceptions aimed at easing the transition to electric cars for those who prefer manual gearboxes.

These, however, are not expected to last, and only some manufacturers are even considering such a move.

The death of the manual gearbox looks inevitable. But looking into the future is often fraught with danger.

Con: That one time you need to drive a manual

You will likely need to drive someone else's car at some point in your life. For example, a friend or relative has been taken ill at work and admitted to hospital, and they need someone to fetch their car and drive it home. Whatever the situation, you get the idea – that one-off occasion where you need to help in a crisis. 

Is it a manual? If so, you can’t drive it. And then you might be stuck because it likely won't have occurred to anyone else that you have an automatic-only licence. They may not even know. They will take it for granted that you can drive cars and, therefore, you can drive theirs.

Okay, if your heart is set on an automatic, the inconvenience of one night in your life might not be worth worrying about. Still, it's worth considering the convenience of knowing that all bases are covered with a manual licence.

It is worth bearing in mind if you go on holiday abroad and want to hire a car, though. Or if you’re likely to take on a job where you’ll often need to drive a vehicle that isn't yours, such as a van or regularly get behind the wheel of other people’s cars.

Con: Manuals might be around for longer

The plan is that selling new petrol and diesel motors will be banned in the UK from 2030 onwards.

They will have to be all-electric by then; therefore, no new manual cars will be sold from 2030 onwards (some hybrids will still be made until 2035, but they’ll likely all be automatics anyway).

Originally the deadline was 2040 before it was brought forward. But 2030 is only seven years away, and if the industry and broader society aren't ready for it, it won't take much for that deadline to slip, thus prolonging the life of the manual car.

The ban will come at some point – and it may well be 2030 – but just because they’re saying 2030 today doesn’t mean it’ll necessarily stay that way.

Vans have proved notoriously challenging to achieve a high mileage range from electric power, so the commercial market could be given an extension, for example.

Con: Manual cars will still be around

Even if 2030 is the year when all new cars are all-electric, it won't stop the supply of second-hand vehicles on the market.

That means manuals will continue to be around for many years beyond 2030, although they’ll be in ever-decreasing numbers until they fade away altogether.

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So, there you have it.

On balance, it's probably worth having a manual licence, even if it's just to ‘tick all the boxes’ so you have the maximum flexibility.

That said, there are so many automatics out there now that there’s a perfectly good argument for having an automatic-only licence.

And this argument will only get stronger and stronger as the years go by, so if you’re not learning to drive for another five or ten years, it could be a different story.

Indeed, if you can be 100% certain that it won’t cause you an issue with your chosen career path, then your need to get a manual licence isn't what it was ten or twenty years ago.

And, of course, you don’t have to commit to the automatic-only route for life. If you do need a manual licence at some point, you can re-take your test to get it.

In that respect, the manual is the winner simply because passing your test with one means you can drive automatics, too, whereas that's not the case if it's the other way around.

It certainly isn’t the ‘must have’ necessity that it once was, though.

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