Automatic driving licence numbers double as learners shift away from manuals

More than one million avoid taking manual test amid rise of EVs and standard-fit automatic gearboxes

Britain’s drivers are increasingly giving up on learning to manual cars and opting for automatic-only licences, according to new figures.

Data from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) for the last 10 years shows that the number of people who hold an automatic-only licence has doubled to more than one million. The shift comes amid a rise in the number of electric vehicles and as automatic gearboxes are fitted to more petrol and diesel cars.

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According to the figures, the number of automatic-only licences in Britain has risen from 550,000 in 2012 to 1.1 million in 2022. Automatic licence holders now represent around 2.7% of the country’s total 41m drivers, compared to just 1.5% of the 37 million licence holders a decade ago.

The biggest annual increase came last year, when there was an 11.1% rise and comes at the same time as a massive surge in the number of drivers buying electric vehicles, which operate without a traditional gearbox. EV sales were up 76% in 2021 and have grown another 49% so far this year. They now represent 14% of all new car registrations.

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Driving schools are also shifting towards EVs, with Red Driving School planning to switch to an all-electric learner fleet by 2025 and the AA introducing a range of EVs to its line-up. This means that students learning and sitting their test in an EV will only be able to qualify for an automatic licence.

In 2020, automatic petrol and diesel cars also outsold manual models for the first time ever as more and more car makers fit automatic transmissions as standard in search of better fuel efficiency. While automatics were historically known to be less economical than manual versions, the latest versions often provide better economy and performance than a manual.

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Jessica Potts, head of marketing at BookMyGarage.com, which obtained the data, commented: “The rise in automatic-only driving licences over the past decade is no surprise when you consider the general shift towards EVs and hybrids, as well as the shift towards petrol and diesel cars equipped with automatic gearboxes.

“Some people may see the demise of the manual gearbox as a bit of a shame, but technology has moved on dramatically and now most automatics deliver improved fuel efficiency and driver convenience.”

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Car makers are increasingly abandoning manual gearboxes in favour of automatic transmissions

She added that from an ownership point of view automatic transmissions had some benefits and some drawbacks compared with manuals: “When it comes to comparing maintenance costs between automatic and manual cars, it really depends on the specific car and the way it’s driven. For example, cars with manual transmissions are more vulnerable to poor driving habits - especially the clutch which can be prone to wearing out and, according to our data, costs on average over £530 to replace. Automatic vehicles are more robust in this sense, but it’s worth remembering that some automatic gearboxes have set service intervals and that if something goes wrong with one, their added complexity means repairs will typically cost more than a manual gearbox repair.”

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