LONDON — Rob Cooling, a driving instructor based in Nottingham, has been teaching Britons how to safely navigate a car along their country’s highways, byways and city streets since 2005. Given that automobiles with manual transmissions dominate the roads in the United Kingdom, for years that’s the type he used to teach his students.
But in 2017, he switched to a car with an automatic transmission — an electric vehicle (EV), specifically — and his business accelerated. “Once I started actively marketing that I was automatic, I was quickly overwhelmed with inquiries.” He now works off a permanent 12-month waiting list.
Meanwhile, 190 miles to the south on England’s south coast, the Home James School of Motoring in Barton on Sea is also seeing a huge increase in students wanting automatic lessons. Owner Rob James has 22 full-time, independent instructors who work for him on a franchise basis, but only one uses an automatic. Accordingly, that person, a woman, regularly has 25 students on her waiting list. “We’re adding two more automatic instructors later this summer,” James explains. “That should alleviate things a bit.”
The growing demand for automatic lessons that Cooling and James are trying to accommodate is just one indicator that cars with manual transmissions are on a highway to obsolescence in Britain — an amazing reversal of fortune for automatics in a country whose ethos for decades was that real drivers don’t use them.
But statistics from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency prove the trend is real. Last year, out of the 1.6 million driving tests it administered, 202,506 were taken in automatics, or 12.7% of the total. That may seem like a negligible amount, but it’s an increase of more than 90% from just five years ago.
And it’s likely that even more driving students would be taking their practical test in an automatic if only they could get lessons in one. In the U.K., new drivers take their road test in their instructor’s car, and the vast majority of instructors still use manual-transmission cars. “The demand can’t be met by available instructors,” James says.
The boom in automatic lessons is, however, something of a lagging indicator of the fast-growing popularity in Britain of cars that don’t require a stick shift and clutch.
Last year for the first time, automatic cars outsold manuals, according to new-car sales statistics compiled by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. A total of 915,812 automatics were purchased last year, or 56% of 1,631,064 cars sold. To be sure, because of the pandemic, overall sales were sluggish in 2020. But in 2019, when total sales hit 2,311,140, automatics accounted for 49% of them.
As recently as 2016, manuals comprised 65% of sales, even though the trend toward automatics began slowly building in 2010. Before that, manuals regularly held around 85% of the market. That’s a big difference from the United States, where cars with gear shifts made up just 2.4% of sales last year.
The change to automatics in the U.K. won’t be reversed, either. The global auto industry has thoroughly embraced electrification. And EVs don’t have a gearbox; they’re all automatics. The investment bank UBS forecasts that in 2025, 20% of cars sold worldwide will be EVs, revving to 50% by 2030 and possibly hitting 100% by 2040.
And Britain’s pivot toward EVs will likely be turbocharged by a government mandate that bans sales of new gasoline or diesel cars after 2030. Stuart Masson, an industry analyst who operates The Car Expert, a popular automotive blog, predicts that EVs will start to dominate sales by mid-decade, and by the end of the decade “there will be very few petrol (gasoline) cars available, though some used cars will soldier on.”
Nevertheless, for the time being, EVs comprise only around 10.7% of Britain’s new-car market.
So what’s behind the recent big U-turn toward automatics? It’s mainly driven by manufacturers going all in on automatics, and more U.K. buyers seeing them as the better option.
A generation ago, Masson says, automatics were sluggish, had poor fuel economy compared to manuals and cost more. “The quality of driving was inferior.”
Today, however, while they still cost more, they’re much more economical to drive, thanks to technologies like double-clutch transmissions and continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), both of which use computerized systems that automatically shift the transmission into the right gear.
Automakers began promoting these newer types of automatics because in lab tests they offer the best fuel economy and lowest emissions, Masson says. “The process is so perfect it results in optimal energy tests.” Initially, it was mainly top-end marques that went all in on automatics, but they’re now becoming standard in mid-priced models, too. “Here in the U.K., the cheap end of the market is where manuals still reign supreme, but that’s changing, too.”
For all those reasons, British consumers have also learned to love automatics. “The driving experience is very, very good,” Masson says. “And the performance is very, very good.”
For British driving instructors, however, the increasing demand for automatic lessons and the coming dominance of EVs is a quandary. For now, even students who plan to drive an automatic can opt to take their lessons and test in a manual, because drivers licensed to drive one are also allowed to drive automatics. However, those who take their tests in an automatic can only drive automatics.
But at some point fairly soon instructors will have to decide to ditch their manual cars. If they do so too quickly, when overall demand for manual lessons remains robust, they could take a short-term financial hit. But if they wait too long, that demand could quickly dry up, leaving them stuck with a manual car they can’t afford to ditch. “We’re not there yet, but we will be eventually,” James admits. “At what point do you switch? We don’t know yet.”
For hardcore motoring enthusiasts, who enjoy the pleasures of shifting through the gears on long and winding roads, the death of the manual transmission is something to bemoan.
But, as Masson notes, they’re now in a minority.
“Fewer and fewer people are that interested in the romance of driving for pleasure. And for those who drive a lot in urban stop-and-go traffic, automatics are easier.”
Nevertheless, Masson suspects a few gasoline-fueled, manual-transmission sports cars will survive the coming era of electrification. But like vinyl LPs, they’ll be a niche product. For purists only.
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British Motorists Move Away From Manual Transmission Vehicles originally appeared on usnews.com