'Our switch to electric will soon make driving manual cars a lost art'

Much has been written about the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in 2030/2035, with numerous stories covering everything from the relatively high cost of EVs and how to replace lost fuel duty, to on-street charging issues, supply-chain ethics, market appetite and range inconvenience.

a close up of a sign

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But there’s one question that hasn’t been addressed: what will happen to our ability to drive cars with manual gearboxes once every new car is an EV?

Here’s how this problem plays out: right now, if you want to drive a car with a manual gearbox, you have to take your driving test in a manual car. Take your test in an auto and, unless you retake your test in a three-pedal car, you’re confined to self-shifting transmissions in perpetuity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, about 90 per cent of learners go for the manual option (as an interesting side note the pass rate is significantly higher for these people). And while the proportion of auto-only tests has increased from around four to 10 per cent over the years, it’s clear most people want the ability to drive manuals over the course of their driving career.

Gallery: Cars with crazy seating arrangements (Autocar)

But with the exception of one or two curios like the original Honda Insight, every hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric car comes with an automatic gearbox. Technology may evolve (and we’ll gloss over mild hybrids, which won’t escape the 2030 ban), but for now everything that doesn’t have a pure petrol or diesel engine comes with only two pedals.

No problem, you might think – being of a certain age you passed your test in a manual car. Okay, fine – I’m in the same boat. But what happens to the next generation once all new cars are electric or hybrid automatics? After all, driving-school cars tend to be relatively new, so a meaningful number of learners taking their test from 2030 onwards will be doing so in an auto, while it’s fair to say that no post-2040 candidates will be tested in a manual. 

It’s fair to expect that as more and more new cars become electric or hybrid, petrol and diesel cars will slowly dwindle from the used landscape. But they won’t disappear altogether, and there are no plans to ban existing petrol and diesel cars from the road – 2030/35 affects only new models, so those wishing to hang on to anything from a classic Porsche 911 to a 1980s Vauxhall Nova will be able to, as things stand. 

I’ve written before about the impact new policies could have on the used-car market, and while it’s fair to say this issue has the potential to significantly impact prices for second-hand manual cars, that’s not my main focus.

No, what I’m concerned about is the fact that without legislative change, the ability to drive cars with manual gearboxes will be lost within a generation.

For what it’s worth, I’ve asked the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to pick its and the Department for Transport’s brains about this puzzler. Let’s hope devising a solution like a classic-car driving test isn’t beyond the wit of policymakers. 

With thanks to reader Andrew Hendry, whose question about electric cars and driving tests prompted this column.

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