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Common Tread

We might have more new riders if bikes weren't all manual

Jul 09, 2019

My good friend Will has weighed the costs and benefits of riding, and decided it’s not for him. I respect that 100 percent. 

We don’t get to hang out much while he works on his doctorate a couple states away, but we make time every once in a while. When I stopped by with our Africa Twin on a recent visit, Will thought it was a pretty cool bike at face value. But when I told him about its dual-clutch transmission that didn't require any shifting, he found himself reconsidering his position on riding.

My recent article about the AT started a full-on discussion about automatic motorcycles in the comments section, and I’d like to use Will’s experience to extend the conversation.

Here’s my hypothesis: I think the lack of automatic options is hurting motorcycling in the United States. Most Americans don’t know how to use a manual transmission, and without alternatives, motorcycling’s going to have an increasingly difficult time enticing new riders.

What exactly constitutes an automatic motorcycle? If all you have to do is twist the throttle to go, I’d call that an auto. Automatics can include scooters, maxi-scooters, continuously variable transmission motorcycles (Aprilia Mana 850, for example), electric bikes, or Hondas featuring a Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT). Semi-automatics also exist. These bikes are usually shifted with a gear selector, but without manual control of the clutch. Rekluse clutches and that goofy Guzzi with a torque converter could fall into this category. A semi-auto bike is “easier” to ride than a standard motorcycle, though it still requires input beyond gas and brakes. 

Honda Africa Twin DCT
“I really like the lines of this bike,” Will commented as he walked around the AT. “It looks like it could go anywhere. It’s so tall, though!” Photo by Andy Greaser.

Will’s a really smart guy. I have no doubt that he could learn to use a motorcycle’s manual transmission if he wanted. However, he says the two main things stopping him from riding are the problems of shifting and safety. And since he doesn’t see the roads getting any safer, he’s not very interested in learning an intimidating skill that he’s unlikely to use. Sounds rational to me. In that respect, I think my friend represents many people who’ve considered motorcycling, then decided against it. There are many easier things to get into.

My friend’s entire outlook on the problem changed when I showed him the Africa Twin. Will was amazed that the AT, which is very unscooterlike, could be ridden like a simple twist-and-go. “It’s still so much more motorcycle than I’d need, but I would absolutely ride that! Do they make any other bikes that I don’t have to shift?”

Honda DCT
Honda's DCT is a little more complex inside than a traditional setup, but it's extremely easy to use. Honda photo.

Just like that, Will went from a hard pass to an open mind. He’d also run into one of motorcycling’s big problems in the United States: Manual transmissions are great for those of us who already ride and/or drive manuals, but terrible for pretty much everyone else. And yes, Will, Honda does make a few others, but Team Red’s about the only big name in the game producing motorcycles like these. I’ve said it before: This is insane to me.

Look at it this way. Most Americans learn the rules of the road in a car. In this country, the percentage of new cars with manual transmissions being sold is in the low single digits and falling. (Based on RevZilla’s parking lot, I bet we have one of the higher manual-transmissions-to-employees ratios in the state.) Switching over to the world of two wheels would be a big transition for most people, and learning the fundamentals of manual shifting in the middle of that alien experience could get pretty overwhelming. Plus, as Will points out, learning any of this at all is especially difficult without someone to lend you a manual vehicle and show you the ropes.

We’ll never know the number of people who aspired to ride, looked into bikes for about 10 minutes, and then gave up because they realized they couldn’t even get one in gear. I’ve heard the argument that if a potential rider isn’t willing to learn manual shifting, they probably won’t want to learn all the other skills and disciplines necessary to ride, and maybe that potential rider would be better off without motorcycles. I’m not convinced. Just look at the millions of people around the world who rely on automatic scooters and small motorcycles for everyday transportation. Manual shifting is just deeply ingrained in the riding culture here, which favors larger motorcycles ridden recreationally by enthusiasts. And enthusiasts love their manuals.

Shifting the industry

For all their virtues, I think manual transmissions present a significant barrier to entry for motorcycling, and maybe it’s on manufacturers to take that into account when making new bikes. They have to take plenty of other factors into account, of course, like the additional cost of an automatic transmission, the additional weight, and the relatively low demand for them among the people actually buying motorcycles. Might be more demand for them if they offered more of them... and Honda's certainly moving units.

I don’t think Will’s about to run out and buy a DCT Africa Twin, or a Zero, or a Vespa. If a dozen new auto models came out next week, all in his price range, he’d still drive his Civic or take the train. But for all those other potential riders on the fence, some more auto models could be just what they need to realize the dream of riding. Right now, you’re pretty much out of luck unless you want a scooter, an electric motorcycle, a 700-plus cc Honda, or something obscure.

Motorcycling has never been a path of least resistance in this country. With more auto bikes, it could certainly be a path of less resistance than it is currently. You can always learn to shift later.

Could automatic motorcycles revitalize the industry? I think that’d be asking a lot. I’d just like more options to meet the non-shifters where they are. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see someone get out and ride an auto than miss out entirely. There’s so much more to motorcycling than changing gears.