Why Automatic Transmissions are the Future of Motorcycling

Will tachometers become obsolete?

Will tachometers become obsolete?

Little attention is paid to shifting. I suppose it’s understandable, since shifting quickly becomes an unconscious, mechanical procedure. But, there are many benefits related to skillful shifting technique, including control mastery and the likelihood of tapping into the illusive Zone. Think about how satisfying it is to smoothly click through the gears with a barely detectable interruption in forward drive. Your hands and foot perform flawlessly with perfect timing and minimal effort. Nirvana!

Gear shifting is the act of matching engine RPMs with speed; the faster you go, the higher gear you select. But, shifting is also a significant part of the riding “experience”.

It’s not only motorcycle riders who experience the joys of manual shifting. People who drive cars with manual transmissions know how shifting gears “involves” the driver.

Shifting is not that hard to learn...really.

Shifting is not that hard to learn…really.

Shifting is Scary to Some

Motorcyclists have not been faced with the choice of whether to purchase a manual or automatic transmission, because all motorcycles came with a clutch and gearshift lever. However, manufacturers are now offering models with automatic transmissions, such as the Honda VFR 1200.

Past examples of automatic motorcycles never sold well, but that was a long time ago, so why would manufacturers do this?  The fact is that very few manual shift cars are being sold in the U.S., which means that if motorcycling is to grow (or even maintain its numbers), then manufacturers need to provide machines with automatic transmissions because manual transmissions intimidate potential new riders who see the clutch and shifter as a barrier to learning to ride.

With few new riders entering motorcycling, it is important to entice them any way possible. Which is why it makes sense to offer full-sized automatic models (not a scooter, thank you very much) to a potential new rider who is inexperienced in manual shifting. It just might encourage them to make the decision to enter the world of motorcycling.

Shifting is Fun...if done well.

Shifting is Fun…if done well.

Learning to Shift is not Hard

The fact is that of all the skills a new rider must learn, learning to shift gears is one of the least problematic. The newbie student in a MSF Basic RiderCourse learns to shift during the first couple of hours of their introductory day of riding. Sure, some people struggle with the coordination of clutching and shifting, but most get past the difficulties and go on to pass the course. The reasons students fail the course is because of more critical issues, such as braking or cornering problems, but not shifting.

Shifting is your least worry when riding a motorcycle.

Shifting is your least worry when riding a motorcycle.

Shifting is Your Least Worry

There are a ton more important aspects of riding that should deter borderline new riders from riding, such as surviving riding in traffic, being able to make a corner at speed, stopping before colliding with a Buick, or losing traction on a sandy road. But, shifting really shouldn’t be one of them.

Long live the Clutch

However, the fact that shifting can be a barrier that stops potential new riders from taking the plunge means that manual transmissions could become more and more rare. On one hand, the sport desperately needs a new generation of riders to replenish the ranks. On the other hand, I would be very sad to see the manual transmission go the way of the kick-starter. Do you think this is possible?

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Ken is author of "Motorcycling the Right Way” and "Riding in the Zone" (book and blog). He is also the "Street Savvy" columnist for Motorcyclist Magazine, and former longtime author of the Proficient Motorcycling and Street Strategies columns for Motorcycle Consumer News. Ken is Lead Instructor for Tony's Track Days, a 20 year Motorcycle Safety Foundation instructor, and owner of Riding in the Zone Motorcyclist Training.

Posted in All Things Motorcycle, Motorcycle Musings, Rider Education Tagged with: , ,
15 comments on “Why Automatic Transmissions are the Future of Motorcycling
  1. Sander says:

    Automatic transmissions are great for new riders, but they should never replace manual transmissions which give you much greater control over your bike, just as they do with a car. I hadn’t ridden a manual for several years and am in a country with crazy crazy traffic so the first day I rented an automatic. I was bored and felt like my control over the bike was limited. The next day I rented a manual and was so much happer, had more control – for an experienced rider a manual transmission is not just more fun, it’s safer

  2. Sidney Watts says:

    I’ve been riding bikes for 45 years. A couple years ago I developed carpel tunnel syndrome and arthritis in my left hand. It broke my heart to have to sell my Vulcan 900 V-Twin. Then the CTX700 with DCT came out and I was able to ride again. I just wish it was available on bigger, more powerful bikes.

  3. Anatoly Kulov says:

    Honda’s Dual Clutch Transmission (or DCT) needs to be developed in a way where it doesn’t drag the power of the engine. Honda VFR1200 DCT isn’t suppose to be slow but it is due to DCT’s structure. On the other hand, CVT being a newer technology has the potential to beat DCT in terms of power. The problem with the current CVT technology is that, the clutch gets disengaged below 25kph. So if you’re riding on a long, downhill road in a slow moving traffic, it can get very scary. On the other hand DCT doesn’t have that issue. DCT’s clutch automatically disengages when you come to almost a full stop, so cornering isn’t a problem compared to CVT. I just hope Aprilia invests more on CVT technology just like what Honda did with their DCT. Yamaha has one bike that has CVT in it but that model didn’t sell much.

  4. James Russell says:

    All,
    I think the introduction of automatic transmission will be a fantastic addition to ALL types of Bikes. I for one eargerly await the introduction of an Auto transmission onto a Cruiser/Chopper styled Bike.
    WHY?
    Well I’m disabled and I have only managed to pass my Full Auto Test. So for the moment I am stuck on the scooters or the expensive bikes with the auto transmission. Surely having one leg shouldn’t hold me back from riding the bike of my choice. Well with these auto transmissions becoming more and more popular, it won’t be holding me back for long. Would I then be considored a ‘real’ man riding a ‘real’ motorbike????

  5. James R. Epstein says:

    Good article. With these new transmissions etc. sales will dictate what the manufacture will offer. I’ll keep an open mind and see where it goes. I can’t judge now as I’ve not driven an automatic motorcycle. I’ll keep an open mind to what the future brings.

    • Bill Shields says:

      I’ve ridden +1000cc bikes with manual gearboxes for 30 years, clunky Guzzis and BMWs, smoother Yamahas and Kawasakis. But for pure refined, effortless flexibility, none of them touch my new Honda 750X with its dual-clutch auto box. I never thought I’d like an auto bike, but now I can’t imagine going back to doing the work myself when a computer does it so much better, especially in stop-go London traffic. Now all I await is a 100hp bike with a similar gearbox.

      • Elemer Nagy says:

        Bill Shields
        Hi, I’ve got the NC700X DCT. The version from before your 750X. I really enjoy the option that I can choose when I want to do the shifting or leave it in “D”..
        I also tried the VFR 1200X DCT. It was fantastic. I am strongly thinking about buying it. This year’s model has got more extras as part of the basic price. I think you should go for a test ride.

        Once BMW decides to wake up, the R1200 GS will be great one with a dual clutch gearbox.

  6. Adam N says:

    Eventually, with ride by wire throttles and dual clutch automatic transmissions the throttle will simply be a rheostat which delivers just as much torque as you want to the rear wheel. With the ability of the computer to predict everything you can lay down one long increasing it decreasing amount of torgue seamlessly without breaks or gaps.

    With lean sensitive traction control (and now lean sensitive ABS on KTM) you’ll lay down exactly the right amount, even in changing road conditions.

    Manual transmission my be on they way our because fewer people are willing to learn to shift, they’re also on their way out because the technology coming is better.

  7. Aaron S says:

    I suspect new riders are most intimidated with starting and stopping with the manual transmission. There are clutches out there that a new rider can ignore the clutch lever for starting and stopping but a rider wanting to operate the clutch for a higher rpm start could do so. The transmission is still manual for the immersive experience. I could see these showing up on more bikes targeted for new riders.

  8. Wislon says:

    I like my gearbox & clutch. As others have said, it’s a pleasure to use them for spirited riding. Not so much in town; I’d frankly like an automatic to free my attention for complex traffic situations.
    Can I have the best of both? Audi just bought Ducati; maybe we can see some of their spiffy gear selectors or paddle shifters soon?
    I’ll take that F1 shift, thanks!

  9. Bill Cool says:

    Half the fun of riding a motorcycle is wringing it through the gears! I surely hope those levers on the left side of the bike stay put for many years to come…

    • Ken Condon says:

      I say, let the manufacturers make their auto-matics…as long as they make “real” bikes for the rest of us. 😛

      • mark says:

        I call bs. You put the category of “real” bikes in the same vein of “real” men. A real bike is one that has two or more wheels, less than 4 and an engine to propel it. Period. It is a matter of preference not requirement that you choose to shift or not, but to bended that choice for stupid tomes of real is the shame.

    • Dennis King says:

      I for one like both. Been ridding 61 years. At my age I think I need to tone it down some, and the automatic does just that. However I find myself ringing out my 1977 750A sometime. Easy goes it around town, and love the gas milage, 52 mpg city & hwy combo. Plenty HP too.

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