Ask LH: Should My Daughter Learn To Drive In A Manual Or Automatic?

Ask LH: Should My Daughter Learn To Drive In A Manual Or Automatic?

Dear Lifehacker, My daughter is about to get her L-Plates and our family have been talking about whether it is worthwhile for her to learn on a manual or not. Is it still a useful skill given how common automatics are — and especially with new technologies such as electric engines? Thanks, Peter

Learning to drive picture from Shutterstock

Dear Peter,

Unless you’re obscenely rich, forget about electric models for your daughter’s first car. If you have access to a manual car, she should learn to drive in that. While automatic transmissions are becoming more and more prevalent there are still plenty of manual cars on the market, both new and second-hand. Why limit her choice of automobile when it comes to buying?

By learning how to use a clutch pedal and manual shift stick, your daughter will be qualified to drive any car. Even if she chooses to buy an automatic, it’s still good to know how to drive a manual. For example, it means she will be able to drive a friend’s car when asked, regardless of the make.

It could also make her a better driver, as she will have more control over acceleration and braking. Plus, manual cars tend to be a bit cheaper at the lower end of the market compared to auto equivalents. They are also easier to maintain due to the simpler transmission and lack of automatic transmission fluid.

The only real downside to manual cars is the steeper learning curve, but as a safety-concerned parent, this actually works in your favour — it means she will be forced to slowly learn the basics in empty car parks instead of zooming down populated streets. (Wily parent tip: A manual car also make it nearly impossible to smoke while driving.)

We’re keen to hear what other readers think. Should new drivers still take the time to learn manual, or is it the new version of a horse and carriage? Share your opinions in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • There is no way in the world my kids will get only automatic licenses. You never know when they could be in a situation of needing to drive a manual. Our only manual is my hiace commuter work van. If they can drive that, they can drive anything!

    • The last time I drove a manual car was during my license test. Over 15 years ago. I wouldn’t be confident driving one now, even though I legally can.

    • Most cars built now will be automatic anyway, gears are great for a rev heads but not necessary anymore. Most kids learning to drive nowadays don’t need and will never need a manual licence. besides that most cars being built now have gearboxes that allow both without a clutch.

    • Agreed. And especially so when travelling.

      Although autos are the norm here and in the US, that isn’t the case everywhere. In most of Europe, and especially the UK, auto is a premium option and so most cars are manual still.

      This applies to rental cars too. Which could limit options to something more expensive than originally intended if an auto box is essential.

  • Is it still a useful skill given how common automatics are
    I think this really comes down to what cars you and her friends have access to. It sounds like you dont currently own one, so it may make financial sense to train her in what you have, rather than both of you learning a new car, or paying solely for lessons

    Got a friend or family member with one? Show her the ropes and get her to test it out. She may balk at the idea altogether. As Chris says, the learning curve is steep, and you would know better than us how your daughter can handle juggling multiple pedals and a stick.

    That said, if all her friends are getting manuals, then her options of helping out when needed become greatly reduced. Emergency situations, designated driver, etc.

    I live in Sydney and I’ve managed to get by for nearly 20 years without needingto drive a manual, because pretty much nobody in my family had one, and most of my friends went auto. It didn’t have an impact on me when I got my motorbike licence either, it all kind of made sense.

  • I think everyone should learn in a manual, and like the smoking tip the same can be said about mobile phones, someone one will be less tempted to send a text message when they need to keep their hand ready to change gears.

    In the event that they need to drive someone else’s car (in cases of emergency/ friends/co worker/BOSS have drank too much etc) it provides greater flexibility.

  • Assuming you have access to both Auto and Manual…
    I would get her started on the Auto and get comfortable driving around before introducing manual transmission with its slightly more involved hill starts etc.
    Driving manual would be a good skill to have.

  • The automatic/manual license thing is a silly law. For a driver who is already competent, learning to drive a manual shouldn’t take more than about 30 minutes.

    • I disagree with you there. If you’ve been driving for ten years, maybe, but for someone just off their P plates even, I would be a nervous passenger. Handbrake starts for hills, stop-and-go city traffic, parking and such are much trickier than you’d think.

  • My daughter is on her L’s now. We’re only teaching on an automatic. If we had access to a manual, I would consider it, but given we don’t, I’m not bothering. I would rather her first car be an automatic, even if there is a little bit more cost involved, anyway. Do not expect the attitude to change when it comes to my son in a few years time. Neither of them are rev heads. A manual license I would consider more of a “nice to have” then a “must have” these days.

  • If she’s planning on traveling ever she needs a manual license. Automatics aren’t as prevalent everywhere else.

  • I’m going to be the contrarian here. I’ve taught all of my kids (3 boys) to drive in manual cars and was that a fun process…

    With the benefit of hindsight, I’d now start them with an automatic. Why the change of opinion? I think that the SINGLE most important thing for new drivers to learn is awareness of their environment – understanding what is happening OUTSIDE the car. In my experience, when kids start to learn in a manual, they are so focused on the controls that anything that is not immediately in front of them isn’t part of their decision making process. It is only once they have mastered the controls that they became gradually more aware of things further in front of the car, beside and behind the car. When they were ready to be given a licence (ACT has logbook-type competencies that have to be signed off) they were looking well ahead and had alternative routes in mind – but it took time and a lot of grey hair!

    I think that driving an automatic first means that a learner progresses more quickly to being aware of the driving environment and gains more from patient instruction about roadcraft. Learning to drive a manual AFTER mastering an automatic isn’t that hard (per @hellboy1975) – it’s juggling the coordination exercise involved in operating a manual PLUS the critical development of roadsense that makes it such a challenge early in their driving lives.

  • Depends on if the driver has good coordination and simultaneous capacity skills or not… Many drivers should really spend their first years on the road focusing on the traffic only and not worry about the correct gear and working the clutch. If the driver is able to easily manage the manual from the start of the training it is a no brainer as a manual license (any where in the world) is more useful…

  • My kids will be learning how a car drives and handles. Not just how to push go and stop.

  • I learnt in an auto because i couldn’t be stuffed with a clutch, i wanted to just concentrate on the important parts. Now i have an auto that can be put in manual mode and change gears easily and i have no friggin clue how to use it.

    Its extremely unlikely they will end up in a situation when they NEED to use a manual unless they are inclined to go travelling abroad, although still possible here too.

    Even so i would like to be able to use my car in manual mode, and it doesn’t hurt to know.

    TL;DR: Learn a manual

    • Why not book a lesson with a driving instructor? I was out at the movies with a friend a while back, we’d taken her car and she became so unwell she couldn’t drive. Having a manual licence meant I could get her home quickly and easily without having the hassle of having to call a cab / have her go back and get the car. If we’d been someone remote it could have been a dangerous situation.

      • Not a bad idea actually (though id be scared to find out i’m not as good as i think i am).

  • Get her a (manual) bike as well as an (auto) car. Then you can get convenience and enjoyment from both.

  • Always learn a manual first. Automatics are nice but in a manual you feel the car far more , and be part of it.

  • Wow. Really? Manual cars? Surely you’re joking! In 5 years robot-cars will be hitting the marketplace, and within 15 to 20 years human driving could be banned as a self-indulgent and dangerous luxury with such deadly consequences for no reward. And we’re still debating whether or not to learn on a manual? I was recently debating whether or not to teach my 17 year old to drive in the first place!

    • I don’t think the majority of roads in this country are in good enough condition for fully automated cars. Not to mention, if a robot car breaks the road rule who can the government fine, its not in their interest to let them happen.

      Considering how many > 20 year old cars are on the road, and the government cant just outlaw all non automated cars in the state/country (in CDB maybe they could), it could well be at least 40 years before they one could expect the majority to be automated, especially with how much they cost.

  • I feel really uncomfortable driving an automatic. It feels like driving a toy and you don’t have the same sense of control. Having a manual licence means you can buy any used car, not just the more expensive auto options.

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