Gearboxes, gear shifting and motorcycles go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, learning how to shift correctly takes time, and it’s a complicated process. Beginning riders often stall out, and, unfortunately, that can affect their confidence when learning. The thing is, there are options available to make learning how to ride easier. Also, those same options aren’t necessarily reserved for beginning riders. These models are considered self-shifting motorcycles, and they utilize an automatic transmission.
I know you’re likely scratching your head, asking yourself, “Really, are there any motorcycles that are automatic?” While automatic transmissions aren’t a popular choice among motorcyclists, they do exist. Granted, most manufacturers who have tried to make automatic bikes a commercial success have not succeeded (Honda being the exception). However, with an increased environmental interest and the popularity of electric motors, automatic transmissions in motorcycles are gaining popularity.
History of Self-Shifting/Automatics Bikes
The funny thing is that many riders like to act like automatic transmissions are something new in motorcycles. The truth is, one of the first appearances of an automatic transmission, or self-shifting, bike happened in 1913. That’s right, over a century ago. The bike was the Rudge “Multi.” This bike used a variable or adjustable pulley system operated with a hand crank instead of the normal physical gears. The cranking system helped to push the drive belt outward because the pulley halves were close together, thereby increasing the diameter of the space and acting as second gear. Unfortunately, while this bike was a mechanical marvel, it had numerous issues, primarily with the leather belts, which meant that manually shifted gearboxes dominated the industry.
However, while the earlier variations of the automatic transmission failed, it sparked an evolution in engine design in the form of a variable system. The WellBike used two adjustable pulleys as opposed to the Rudge’s one. The new bike was not only an automatic design, but it was also a folding bike that was intended to be parachuted to troops during World War II. However, because the war ended before production reach full-tilt, the bikes never got off the ground (quite literally). Although, the technology that made the WellBike so appealing in the first place eventually became the foundation of today’s Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT engines. This engines became standard in the designs of scooters, Vespas, snowmobiles and mopeds, even finding their ways into cars, like the Mini and Fiat 500. Unfortunately, CVT engines are bulky and somewhat heavy when compared to conventional motorcycle engines, meaning that unless a rider had a Harley or large Touring, then the engines weren’t practical for most bikers. Although, with modern electronics and capabilities, there are growing possibilities for commercially successful self-shifting motorcycles.
Evolution of Electronics
While original automatic systems were bulky and impractical, modern designs are making room for the comfort and ease of self-shifting designs. For example, the Honda CTX700 DCT uses a clutch that is computer-controlled. Therefore, while the six-speed gearbox is the same as a traditional bike, there is no torque converter or belt because everything is electronically shifted. Although this technology might seem new and exciting, it has also been around for some time, appearing most notably in professional drag races. See, while there are hard-nosed traditionalists who will never accept an automatic transmission on their bike, professional drag bike racers understand that technology has its place and provides certain advantages as well.
Understanding the Benefits
While knowing the answer to “What is return shift?” might be beneficial in some circles, it is not necessary to enjoy the experience of owning a motorcycle, especially one with an automatic transmission. Sure, you will have those old school bikers that think self-shifting bikes are for sissies, but the truth is automatic transmissions provide several advantages over manual ones. First, they are convenient and drastically reduce the learning curve for riding. Second, because of the design of automatic engines, they are typically more powerful than manuals. Third, because manual bikes involve a fair bit of driver involvement, automatics usually accelerate faster. Finally, automatics use torque multiplication, increasing power and acceleration off of idle, which is beneficial for professional racers.
Combatting the Stereotypes
After reading all of the benefits of automatic transmissions, you are likely wondering why self-shifting bikes aren’t more popular? Bias. Unfortunately, most riders today were taught on manual bikes, and the biking community has a long tradition of manual over automatics. Therefore, many old-school riders don’t have any need for the switch. However, for new riders, self-shifting bikes help to build confidence in their riding skills. Thankfully, the biking world seems to be more accepting than they once were, and an automatic rider is less likely to be shamed for their choice.
However, it is not uncommon for new or experienced riders to feel like they will be judged for choosing an automatic over a manual. It would be a lie to say that no one will look down on that decision. Unfortunately, there are still a few riders who feel that manual reigns supreme. Though, their opinion shouldn’t matter. Most of the biking community is accepting and encouraging of all riders, regardless of their transmission choice. We just want the community to grow so everyone can experience the freedom of riding a motorcycle.
Bikes on the Market
While automatic transmissions are still a rarity in the motorcycle community as a whole, the number of riders choosing self-shifting models is growing. This shift in preference is most evident in the number of bikes that are available with automatic transmissions. There are at least seven that we’ve noticed.
- Aprilia Mana 850
- Energica Ego
- Zero SR
- Honda NC00X DCT
- Honda VFR1200X DCT
- Honda NM4 Vultus DCT
- Honda CTX700 DCT
How do you shift to neutral on a motorcycle? Do you know the answer? What about shifting into third or fourth gear? While there was a time when no knowing these answers would prevent you from successfully riding a motorcycle, with automatic transmissions that is no longer the case. Sure, some traditionalists will scoff at self-shifting bikes, but you need to do what works for you. So, pick up your automatic bike, deck it out with all the best motorcycle aftermarket and OEM parts, and ride with pride in your decision.