An internal combustion engine (ICE) isn't the only notable absence on most electric cars. You're also unlikely to find a conventional manual gearbox. Instead, many electric vehicles have only a single forward gear, or a maximum of two.

There are some exceptions — the Ford Mustang Lithium, a one-off concept car unveiled in 2019, had a six-speed manual gearbox — but generally speaking, electric cars don't have gearboxes.

For motorists who learned to drive with a manual transmission, this can feel alien at first, but for those who have driven automatic ICEs in the past, it's likely to come as less of a culture shock.

But why are electric cars with manual gearboxes so rare? It's all down to the technology that drives them.


Manual vs automatic gearboxes

If you've driven a manual ICE, you'll be familiar with the three-pedal system of accelerator, brake and clutch. When you want to change gear, you first press down on the clutch. Get it wrong or release the clutch at low speed, and you're likely to stall.

Automatic gearboxes don't have this, and neither do electric cars. A battery-powered vehicle can't stall in the way that a petrol or diesel engine can, so fitting it with a clutch is fairly meaningless.

This isn't the only difference with the pedals in an electric car, compared with most ICE vehicles. For example, when you brake in an EV, the energy recovered from the brakes is typically used to recharge the battery — something that is much less common on ICEs.


How many gears do EVs have?

All of the above means many electric vehicles have just one forward gear, capable of delivering nearly constant acceleration up to the car's maximum speed. Some also have a second forward gear. Of course, EVs also have reverse gear.

Interestingly, the rpm of an electric motor can be much higher than that of an internal combustion engine. Whereas an ICE car might struggle at an upper limit of about 6,000 rpm, your quietly whirring EV motor could be spinning at about three times that rate.

However, an electric motor does have an optimum rpm for generating torque, just like a manual gearbox. Because of this, it's usually preferable if the motor stays between 1,000 and 2,000 rpm for the most efficient output.


Why automatic transmission is good for EV efficiency

One benefit of electric cars' automatic transmission is that it ensures the motor always operates efficiently — there's no 'pedal to the metal' or bunny-hopping from first gear directly into fourth. Just a smooth, automatic forward gear with consistent acceleration.

This means as much as possible of the battery charge goes into the forward motion of the vehicle (along with powering other onboard systems like the lights, windscreen wipers, air conditioning, and so on). It also means under braking, as much as possible of the recovered energy can go back into the battery.

All taken together, this helps electric vehicles to meet their theoretical maximums, including that all-important maximum mileage on a full charge. You might hit 62mph slower than in the equivalent ICE model, but you're less likely to run out of juice before reaching your destination.


Why automatic transmission is good for EV maintenance

There are also maintenance benefits to automatic transmission on electric vehicles. Not least of which is that there's no manual gearbox to wear out or clutch to burn out. If you've ever experienced the fishy sulphur smell of a burnt-out clutch, this might sound like the biggest bonus of all.

Like the other parts of an EV, the automatic transmission has fewer moving parts, so it's likely to last longer without needing repairs. As a result, your car is more likely to pass its MOT each year, again saving on the cost of repairs and re-tests.

Finally, the transmission is less susceptible to erratic driving. Whereas on a manual gearbox, you might ride the clutch or miss your intended gear (usually followed by a sickening crunch from your car), this risk is eliminated on an electric car, to keep the transmission in tip-top condition for longer.


Will we ever see a manual gearbox on an electric car?

Motorists are creatures of habit, and there's evidence that several major automobile manufacturers are looking into ways to recreate that authentic manual gearbox experience on an all-electric drivetrain.

In recent months both Ford and Toyota have patented methods of installing manual transmissions into electric vehicles, which would give drivers familiar with manual ICEs a gearstick and clutch pedal in their EV.

How much this would translate into affecting the engine performance remains to be seen, and any effect would likely be little more than a simulation rather than enhancing acceleration at specific speeds and rpms.