Manual or Automatic: How to Decide Which Transmission to Learn
The first step in learning how to drive is choosing whether to get manual or automatic lessons.
While everyone has their own opinion as to which is better to drive or easier to learn, the truth is that neither has any set advantages over the other.
There is no right or wrong choice between the two, but rather a set of pros and cons that vary depending on your needs and wants.
This comprehensive guide will help you decide which option is right for you.
General Pros & Cons
Although pros and cons of manual and automatic vehicles tend to be subjective measurements, there are some general points that most people agree on.
The biggest benefit of obtaining your manual licence is that a manual p1 licence holder is also allowed to drive automatic vehicles without resitting a driving test and paying for a new licence.
Manual vehicles are arguably more fun to drive, although this can vary from person to person. It is a far more involved experience compared to that of an automatic and gives the driver deeper control of the vehicle and this, for most, is a pro.
Manual vehicles are also cheaper than automatic ones so if you obtain a manual licence you can save a bit of cash when buying a car.
Now, some people would argue that my next point is too variable for this list but my experience as a driving instructor means I can confidently say that in most cases learning manual makes you a better driver. This is because the student learns to do everything they would in an automatic with respect driving on the road and combines that with.
It might not sound like much, but learning to properly operate a manual car whilst paying attention to the road and other drivers helps students develop a more thorough understanding of the importance of being switched on, being aware of your surroundings as well as controlling the vehicle appropriately at a range of speeds, all at the same time. Again, this varies between people, however it often tends to be the case.
The downside to a more involved driving experience is that manual takes a little bit longer to learn. Most people can become competent well within the first year of their Ls, but if you’re struggling a bit or have had your Ls for over a year and suddenly need to get your licence ASAP, the extra time it takes to perfect manual could prove to be a hinderance.
Having more to do in a manual car also becomes a negative if you live in the city or usually drive in the inner suburbs and CBD where you’re having to constantly stop and start. Regularly having to work your way up through the gears and then back down again can be tiresome if you find yourself frequently driving in heavy city traffic.
By far the least likely con to affect someone driving manual, but still entirely possible, is the potential to select the wrong gear. While most people who have spent enough time learning to drive manual don’t have this issue, it can still happen occasionally, and it can happen to even the most experienced drivers.
Be it that you’re simply a bit tired, being lazy with your gear stick hand positions or driving an unfamiliar car for the first time, should you accidentally pop it into the wrong gear you could cause serious damage to your gearbox and/or upset the car while you’re moving which can be unsafe.
The main pro of learning automatic is that it’s easier to learn and thus you can halve the time it takes to gain a good level of confidence behind the wheel, not to mention it will likely result in less nerves come test day as there is less you can get wrong.
Automatics make for an excellent city going car as constantly stopping and going at lights is the simple act of pressing one pedal and then pressing the other.
This extends itself to heavy traffic. When you get caught in congestion an automatic is much easier to drive. It allows you to devote 100% of your attention to the volatile nature of stop start traffic and keep an eye out for potential lane weavers. Of course, this is perfectly easy in a manual, however having one less thing to think about makes a world of difference in these situations. It also eliminates the issue of putting excessive wear on your clutch from constantly balancing it halfway before pushing it in again as well as your chances of getting a sore clutch leg.
While manual cars aren’t particularly bothersome to drive, automatics are definitely more relaxing. This doesn’t mean you should be relaxing your attention to the road, but it certainly can bode a more comfortable drive than a manual, especially if you have a lengthy journey planned.
The main problem with learning to drive automatic is of course the opposite of the primary benefit of learning manual.
Once you’ve passed your automatic driving test, should you decide you want to drive a manual car you will have to undergo the whole process again, which includes driving lessons and paying for the driving test. It can be a very expensive undertaking compared to simply getting your manual licence straight away and being able to drive an automatic car.
Being limited to automatic cars means you will always pay more for any car you buy, and should you find yourself with access only to a manual, you’re going to have to call an Uber.
Another con is the ease with which one can fall into the trap of becoming too relaxed while driving an automatic.
Driving an automatic is easy to the point where it can be monotonous. Many people will let this get a hold of them and switch off while driving as there is very little to think
about with respect to operating the car.
This in turn decreases your ability to react to sudden developments on the road and increases your likelihood of having an accident; if the car in the next lane veers into you, for example.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is limited to people driving automatic cars. It can happen with anyone regardless of the type of vehicle they drive, however the simple and comfortable nature of operating an automatic tends to encourage this zombie-like driving style. It is up to the driver to be mindful of this and stay switched on and pay attention at all times.
Reasons you might WANT to learn one over the other
On top of the various pros and cons there are many personal reasons someone might desire to learn one transmission type over the other.
For instance, many students going for their manual licences are doing it for the aforementioned reason of only having to go for their licence once and having the freedom to drive either transmission.
Often an extension of this is the far greater sense of accomplishment that can come from mastering manual and passing your test.
I get many students who are car enthusiasts and this is a big contributing factor in their lust for a manual licence. Even those who aren’t car enthusiasts per-say but genuinely enjoy driving will usually opt for learning manual as opposed to automatic as it provides a better connection between the driver and the car.
If one has their sights set on a particular car that only comes in manual then they will aim for this licence.
If someone has their sights set on a particular car that only comes in manual (maybe they fell in love with a second hand one they found when shopping for their first car), then they will aim for this licence.
Finally, some people simply see the ability to drive manual as a good life skill and thus decide that it is what they should learn to drive, and this is as good a reason as any.
On the flip side, many people have a genuine desire to just learn automatic. Often it can be because the freedom of choice that manual licensing gives you is irrelevant to them as they have absolutely no intention of ever driving a manual.
You will almost always get the opposite of the driving enthusiast. Most people who want to learn automatic see driving as no more than a means of getting from A to B, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t.
Although not incredibly common, I’ll get the odd student who doesn’t care what the transmission is and simply wants their licence as soon as possible and this lends itself to learning automatic. This is usually limited to students who are 17 or older, have had their learner’s licence for over a year, haven’t done much driving but have decided now they want their Ps ASAP.
Many learner drivers are convinced that learning to drive manual is near impossible, and thus will go for their automatic licence.
This myth can make students miss out on something they might otherwise enjoy and this is unfortunate.
To say manual is just as easy to learn as automatic is of course incorrect, however it is it is simply more involved and thus may take longer to get the hang of. So long as you find a good driving instructor and put the effort into practising, eventually manual becomes as easy to drive as automatic.
Reasons you might NEED to learn one over the other
No matter which transmission you want to learn there are a few other factors that may make the decision for you.
The most common reason students have no choice but to learn manual is that they have a job where they are required to drive a company vehicle that is manual.
Another very common reason is that they only have access to a manual car at home. Not all L and P platers can afford to go and buy a new car even if it is a second-hand one, so if they only have manual cars at home then this is the licence they’re going to have to get.
The only real reason you might have to learn automatic instead is if you’ve suffered an injury or disability that dictates you can only drive an automatic car.
Wait, there’s a third option?
Believe it or not there is a third option to choose when deciding on a transmission to learn.
There’s nothing stopping you from learning to drive automatic first before switching to manual and there are a couple of very good reasons why you might decide to do this.
There is a lot involved in driving other than accelerating, braking and changing gears. While factors of driving such as appropriate road position, steering, checking blind spots and parking aren’t hard to do, they are still things that someone who has never sat behind the wheel before needs to learn and get comfortable with.
On top of this, focussing on driving and simultaneously reading road signs and obeying road markings can be daunting for a novice driver.
You may very well have decided to get your manual licence, but there’s nothing stopping you from starting out with automatic to get a feel for driving on the road and becoming familiar with the rules and the less difficult learning points.
Simply having one less pedal can help take the stress out of your initial learning phase and help you get comfortable with the prospect of driving.
Once you have automatic mastered, jump in the seat of a manual and start learning how to change gears.
It works in reverse as well. If you’ve started getting manual driving lessons straight away there’s no rule that says you can’t switch to automatic.
Perhaps your eagerness to learn manual outweighed your readiness to take on all the stimuli at once. If you’re struggling a bit when you start out, getting some automatic lessons might help.
Once you’re comfortable with driving automatic you can go back to manual, or alternatively you may find that you’re perfectly happy to stick with automatic.
There are no rules as to what type of car you can learn in on your Ls so long as you have an open licence holder supervising you. If you want to learn one and then the other you’re more than welcome to.
Now all that is left is to make a decision and get learning. The key thing to remember in the decision-making process is that unless there is a reason you must learn one or the other, you aren’t locked in. There’s no harm in changing your mind halfway.
You might have already decided before you even got your Ls.
(If so, why have you read this far?)
If not, then choosing is easy. You just need to be aware of what is involved in driving automatic and manual and the relevant pros and cons. Then you simply need to weigh up those pros and cons with your wants while taking into consideration any needs that you might have.
If after that you’re still on the fence, give both a go and see which you prefer.
Finally, once you’ve made your decision all that’s left is to learn to be the best driver you can be and to practise prolifically. Even if you finish your 100 hours before you turn 17, for no reason should you stop driving until test day. The more experience you have, the better driver you will be.
And of course, I highly recommend you find a reputable driving school with safe cars that you enjoy learning with to ensure you know everything there is to know about driving, no matter the transmission.
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