What is the difference between automatic and manual driving lessons?
The vast majority of British drivers learn in a manual car, in which the gears are selected using a lever and a clutch pedal. This is still considered the ‘normal’ way to learn despite the growing popularity of the automatic car, which effectively changes gear for you. But if you learn to drive in an automatic, your licence won’t entitle you to drive a manual.
The main difference between manual and automatic lessons is how much time is spent on the gearbox. For a complete newcomer to driving, several lessons will be required on the effective use of the gearbox. Most people pick it up after a few hours, but for some it can be a pointless obstacle to progress.
Why do most people learn to drive a manual car?
Only around 40,000 of the 720,000 driving tests taken by UK learners are ‘automatic’ tests. Even though the number of automatic gearboxes is soaring, it is still assumed that someone with a driving licence will know how to drive a manual.
Most commercial vehicles and vans will come with a manual gearbox. Office cars and pool vehicles tend to be manual too, and the higher price of automatic cars to buy is reflected in their cost to hire when you go on holiday.
What’s more, if your first car is likely to be an inexpensive second-hand model, a manual licence will give you access to a much wider slice of the used car market. If you're after a really cheap car, you're basically stuck with manuals. At the time of writing, only about a quarter of the cars listed in Auto Trader were automatics. Automatic cars tend to command a premium, too, both new and used.
And although the very newest automatic gearboxes can provide fuel efficiency benefits over their manual counterparts, many older automatics are more expensive to run as well as to buy. And, generally speaking, the extra components are less reliable and more costly to maintain.
If, for whatever reason, you’re having problems learning to use a manual gearbox, opting to get an auto-only licence could get you on the road faster. It can be frustrating to keep spending money on manual lessons, when you could skip that part of the syllabus altogether.
And while there are plenty of arguments for learning in a manual, nearly every car is available with an automatic gearbox. They might be slightly more expensive, but realistically your choice is unlikely to be significantly limited by availability of an auto ‘box.
Plus – despite what you may hear from other drivers, and especially automotive journalists – driving a manual can be extremely tedious in traffic. Anything you read about “engagement” and “driving thrill” is mitigated by the dull ache of your left leg as the traffic jam you’re stuck in slows to a crawl.
What are the benefits of learning in an automatic?
I have an automatic (B auto) licence and want to upgrade to manual — can I?
Upgrading from automatic to a full Category B licence is relatively straightforward. You don’t need to apply for a new provisional licence – instead, you can start learning straight away using your existing licence.
Learner rules still apply to you, though. You’ll need to be insured, you’ll need a qualified person accompanying you (either a professional driving instructor, or someone aged 21 or over who has held their licence for at least three years) and you’ll need to display L plates.
And if you take your manual test and fail it, you can continue to drive automatics on your existing licence.