Here's Why Nobody Learns To Drive An Automatic In The UK

Back home, an automatic is for life, not just for your driving test

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A photo of the dashboard in an automatic car.
I’m sorry, can you tell me how this works?
Photo: Honda

At the end of the year, I finally made it out on the roads for my first drive on American soil. And despite a few weird differences, it was great to be back whizzing around the countryside and embracing the freedom of driving for the first time in almost a year.

But, when discussing the wheels I chose for this first foray onto the American highway, there was one admission that sparked debate in the Jalopnik office. That’s because, while outlining the details of the mighty Honda CR-V that I’d chosen for my first road trip in the US, I dropped this little truth bomb:

“Fun fact, it was also the first automatic I’ve driven.”

Since then, my fellow writers here at Jalopnik have been astounded that after 10 years of driving, I’ve never once gotten behind the wheel of an automatic. Not while I was learning, not when I’ve rented cars and definitely not in the few cars that I’ve owned. That, it seems, is very un-American of me.

A red vintage Mini with a learner badge stuck to the front.
Everyone in the UK learns to drive in a car like this, I promise.
Photo: Oli Scarff / Staff (Getty Images)

Erik Shilling even went so far as to say: “In America, taking your driving test with a manual car is like increasing the difficulty setting for no reason.”


But while sitting your test in an automatic seems like the easy, and sensible, option for most learners in the U.S., if you do that back home, you might find yourself limited to your driving choices later in life.

That’s because there are two different licenses available for young drivers. One for anyone who passes with a manual and another, the Category B (Auto), for anyone who opts to sit their test in an automatic.


That’s right, kids, an automatic is for life, not just your driving test.

That’s maybe why sitting your test in a manual is so engrained in the minds of young drivers. As you hit 17, and you and your friends start learning, you’re all excited to share stories of your janky first drives, frustrating stalls and the satisfying shift up to fourth gear.

The interior of a Vauxhall Corsa.
POV: You’re me, learning to drive.
Photo: Vauxhall

As a result, the number of people opting to sit their test in an automatic car is much lower in the UK than it is for manual tests. As of October 2021, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) reports that there are 996,857 people that currently hold Category B (Auto) licenses in the UK.


In contrast, the agency said 39,848,740 people now hold the full Category B license. This permit allows you to drive both a manual and automatic transmission.

So that means there’s almost 1 million people on UK roads who are cursed to only ever drive an automatic car. And, if they change their mind one day and decide they’d rather have a manual, this is what the DVLA has to say to them:

“If your license is only for automatic cars, you can upgrade it by passing a driving test in a manual car.”


That’s right, you have to go through all the stresses and costs of sitting a second driving test, and who wants that?

But it isn’t just driving tests that are skewed in favor of the manual motor.

A photo of the inside of an electric Ford Mustang.
Is this the electrically-charged interior of the future?
Photo: Ford

While cars with a shifter made up just 2.4% of vehicles sold in America in 2020, it’s a very different story back home in the UK. According to a 2020 study, manual cars accounted for 70% of those on the road in the UK.

But the tides could be turning in favor of the auto.

Car sales for 2020 show that it was the first year on record that automatic cars outsold new manuals in the UK. And while they still have a long way to go until they are considered the norm, statistics from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders found that the number of automatic models in the UK has grown by more than half a million units since 2019.


This adoption of the auto will only be encouraged by varying car companies’ shift away from the manual. Mercedes has said it will phase out its manual transmissions by 2030, and the ever-increasing rollout of electric cars will also reduce the need for young drivers to learn stick.