Why would a beginner rider want an “automatic” motorcycle?
There are a variety of reasons a beginner rider would want to consider starting out with an automatic (a motorcycle that doesn’t have to be manually shifted). Primarily the reasons relate to giving the new/beginner rider fewer things to worry about so they can focus on other aspects of motorcycle riding that are going to be new to them.
For example, a beginner with an automatic motorcycle simply balancing the motorcycle properly, learning how to successfully make turns, balancing the application of the front and rear brakes (they are operated separately on about 99% of the motorcycles out there and if the rider doesn’t balance them properly, they can end up crashing the bike), and other such characteristics that make motorcycle riding very different from say driving a car.
So, by selecting a motorcycle that has an automatic transmission, this is one less thing that the new rider has to “worry about” as they learn all the different skills necessary to safely operate the motorcycle.
In this article, we consider the pros and cons of going with an automatic motorcycle for a beginner and allow you to decide if that is an option that you should look into. Keep in mind and we’ll mention it below, that automatic motorcycles ARE NOT VERY COMMON and so you are going to limit your choices greatly if you decide to make this a mandatory feature.
And, not only are there not very many automatic motorcycles out there, but because they are rare you will have very few options if you look on the used market as there just haven’t been that many automatic motorcycles produced over the years and so the market share is tiny.
This may force you to go with a new motorcycle as there are some manufacturers that offer automatics that you could go with but of course, with that choice you are going to end up spending potentially a lot more for that nice new motorcycle with the rare automatic transmission option than you went for a used bike. Things to keep in mind for beginner riders!!
What percentage of car drivers know how to drive a manual transmission car?
In 1913, when Henry Ford began using an assembly line to manufacture automobiles, the first cars that rolled out of the factory (Model Ts) had manual transmissions – only two forward gears in fact. From that point, there was a long period where all the automobiles on American roads were of the manual (standard) transmission types and this trend continued for many decades as the first automatic transmission wasn’t even offered until the 1948 Oldsmobile began offering what they called the Hydromantic– the name they gave to this first commercially available automatic transmission.
This offering came in at a good time as World War II had been recently ended and countries were starting to recover their economies and consumers were open to this more costly option. Ever since that point, the share of automatic transmissions within the auto industry has grown and grown, and while the number of automobile models that even offer a manual transmission option has plummeted.
For example, a survey taken in 2011 by Edmunds revealed that 37% of the automobile models produced that year offered manual transmission as an option yet just about 10 years later, that number has dived to just 13% (based on 2020 models).
A recent study accomplished by Cadillac found that about 66% of Americans actually know how to drive a manual transmission car. As a result of this decline, fewer and fewer motorcycle riders have had the experience of knowing how to even operate an automobile manual transmission which is similar but not the same as operating a motorcycle manual transmission.
And so this will add another challenge for those beginner riders who not only will be learning how to safely operate a motorcycle which is inherently different from operating an automobile. Looking at the new & basic skills a beginner motorcycle will need to learn we see that there are essentially five basic skills a rider must develop as shown in the graphic below.
- Balancing the Motorcycle – the first skill has to do with simply maintaining the balance of the motorcycle during various and changing situations. For example, maintaining the balance of the motorcycle while on straight roads, while turning, and while starting and stopping is going to be a challenge as the most likely equivalent experience the rider will have had will be that of riding bicycles.
The big and main difference however is that bicycles typically weigh far less than even 100 lbs while most motorcycles weigh multiple hundreds of pounds and so the scale of the balancing challenge is vastly different in these two situations.
- Turning the Motorcycle – The act of driving a motorcycle to and through turns is obviously very different from a car as the rider must not only obvious lean the motorcycle “into” the turns but must also manage their speed in terms of the throttle application and additionally the front and rear brake application. Additionally, riders oftentimes must avoid things on the road such as oils that tend to collect on the middle of the lane and rocks and other debris that may be found on the path of the bike.
These are particularly dangerous if the rider is leaning through the turn and encounters oil/rocks which cause the motorcycle to slide and requiring the rider to rapidly detect and resolve the situation through a variety of changes to the amount of turning being applied to the handlebars, the amount of lean, and the acceleration/braking that may be needed.
- Front & Back Brake Application – most motorcycles have independently applied front & back brakes and so it is up to the rider to apply them in a relatively synchronized and balanced manner. Applying too much back brake will cause the motorcycle to “fishtail” or swing from side to side (shown on the left of graphic 3 above) and yet applying too much front brake can cause what is typically even more of a dangerous situation as the motorcycle can stop so quickly that the rider can be launched over the handlebars (see the video explaining the different types of motorcycle braking misapplication induced accidents).
Note: some more modern/expensive motorcycles automatically adjust the application of the front and back brakes to be relatively balanced, as well as many motorcycles, offer forms of anti-lock braking technologies.
- Motorcycle Gear Selection & Clutch/Throttle Operation – one of the reasons for creating this guide to automatic motorcycles for beginner riders is that perhaps a good option for a beginner rider who will be challenged enough with the other 4 factors mentioned in this section is to select an automatic motorcycle for his or her beginner motorcycle to simply allow the rider to avoid this potentially significant additional challenge of learning to ride a motorcycle.
And, considering how the declining availability of automobiles with manual transmissions, this is probably an option that will grow in popularity over time as an automatic motorcycle for a beginner is simply going to be less of a juggling act for a rookie rider to manage.
- Inherent Differences Between Auto & Motorcycle Controls – and lastly, as you may or may not realize, there are profound differences in the controls (location, control mechanism, etc.) between automobiles and motorcycles. Refer to the detailed infographic of basic skill #5 for sampling on some of the key differences that will take some getting used to. These differences, although really easy to understand and comprehend in a benign situation like reading this article, can become extremely problematic during stressful or rapidly unfolding incidents (i.e., a new rider in heavy traffic on a crowded highway, or a new rider approaching an intersection and having to take rapid actions to avoid an accident).
And, it is during these times that a rider may be called on to make split-second control corrections/ applications (say quickly applying their brakes to avoid an accident or even just honk their horn to warn another driver), yet simply fail to do so because of being so programed to operate the controls in an automobile like manner (e.g., simply pressing on a car brake pedal vs. braking on a motorcycle which generally requires releasing the throttle, squeezing the left handlebar lever (applies the clutch to disengage the motor), pressing the right foot pedal (applies the back brake) and squeezing the right handlebar lever (applies the front brake) … all while applying the front and back brakes in a relatively balanced and synchronized manner. That’s a lot to ask of a rookie rider and it’s made all the more difficult by the fact the controls are so different from automobile controls.
Considering all these focus areas and challenges a new beginner motorcycle rider is going to face, you have to ask yourself, is this too much and “should I make the learning curve a little less steep by choosing an automatic motorcycle for my beginner motorcycle?” This becomes an especially poignant question if you are someone who simply has never driven a manual transmission automobile, or you are someone who has perhaps had challenges or mishaps with other outdoor activities that may indicate that operating a motorcycle on an open road, with traffic and other obstacles to contend with may be a dangerous undertaking for you (learn more about these considerations by reading the section of our article of the best motorcycle for beginners … particularly the section that covers a new rider’s previous relevant experiences and how that can provide you with a good indication of how risky your learning to ride motorcycles experience could be).
Having explained all this and if you are now considering going with an automatic motorcycle for your beginner/first motorcycle, then although you will have to contend with the fact that there simply aren’t a lot of automatic motorcycles either out there in the used market or even in showrooms, the good news is those motorcycle models offering automatic transmissions is on the rise. Particularly with Honda’s recent increased investment in this area. As of this article, the following Honda models are available with automatic transmission options.