Would more people take up motorcycling if the manufacturers offered automatic transmissions that made the skills of clutching and shifting unnecessary? Over 97 percent of cars sold in the US have automatics, making it appear that learning to synchronize clutch, throttle, and gear shifting on a motorcycle could be a serious barrier to ownership. Yet despite periodic attempts by the makers to market automatic bikes, they have yet to catch on in any volume. Why not?

First, motorcycling is an iconic adventure, not just how Practical Pig gets from point A to point B. Gear shifting and the exciting rise and fall of engine sound at each shift have always been an important part of that. On the other hand, the most fuel-efficient transmission would hold engine rpm constant as the vehicle accelerated, but to a lot of people such a steady drone is not the sound of adventure. On its Foreman ATV, Honda responded to popular demand by offering an engine control mode that simulated conventional shifting.

A variety of automatic-shift systems have been built. Fuji's Rabbit scooter featured an automotive-style three-element torque converter through 1968. As with Buick's Dynaflow automatic transmission, engine speed remained almost constant as the vehicle accelerated. The several Hondamatic bikes, built from 1973–'79, were also fluid-torque-converter based. Honda's iconic 50cc Super Cub of 1958 could be had with a twist-and-go automatic centrifugal clutch like those of amusement-park go-karts. Many automatic scooters are available today.

In the 1970s, Rokon, then based in New Hampshire, experimented with a motorcycle with a variable-pulley snowmobile drive. In 2006, Yamaha offered its YCCS—Yamaha chip-controlled shifting—on its FJR1300AE. This took the form of a conventional clutch and gearbox operated by computer-controlled actuators as in Formula 1. In 2008, Honda's DN-01 arrived with the "Human Friendly Transmission"—a self-shifting multi-mode hydrostatic drive like those of high-end lawn tractors. Aprilia's Mana 850 employed a belt continuously variable transmission (CVT) like those of some economy cars. Ducati experimented with an automated conventional clutch and gearbox but did not produce it. The most recent system is the DCT, or dual clutch transmission, pioneered by Porsche but optioned by Honda on its VFR1200F, NC700X, Africa Twin, and Gold Wing. The rider can select automatic or manual operation.

Taking a completely different direction, many of the electric bikes now reaching the market are twist 'n' go—no manual clutching required. Can electrics, easy as they are to operate, compete for iconic appeal with traditional motorcycles? The market will answer that question. Electric motorcycles, like electric cars, remain luxury goods at the moment.

Reviewing this history, it’s clear previous automatics that have come and gone were options on fairly expensive motorcycles. This suggests that if manufacturers are now serious about seeking new riders this way they must begin with entry-level automatic bikes at more attractive prices.