When you're first starting to ride a motorcycle, it's an exhilarating and slightly scary experience. You may be skilled in driving a car, but riding a motorbike is a different animal all together. Once you're used to it, however, it's quite a lot of fun. Thanks to modern technology, an automatic motorcycle may be just the thing to help build your confidence.
Individual laws vary from state to state, but the legal definition of what qualifies as a motorcycle is usually based on engine displacement. For example, the state of Illinois offers two motorcycle license classes. Class L consists of motor-driven cycles under 150cc, while class M consists of motor driven cycles over 150cc. No distinction is made between manual and automatic transmissions.
Traditional motorcycles (and older scooters) have transmissions that must be shifted manually. Controls vary from model to model. On most modern manual motorcycles, the clutch is engaged with a lever on the left handlebar, while gear shifting is done with your left foot. Brakes are engaged via a hand lever and foot pedal on the right side of the bike.
Automatic motorcycles, as with their car counterparts, don't require you to shift gears manually or to engage a clutch. Besides controlling your direction and speed, all you are responsible for as a rider is braking.
The world of scooters (not to be confused with mopeds, which are usually under 49cc and often do not require a motorcycle license) has become automatic in the past few decades. Back in the 1960s, Vespa and Lambretta scooters and some imitators had gears and clutches. Modern Vespas are automatic, as are most other scooters sold in the U.S. While most riders of either scooters or motorcycles will swear the other group is nothing like them, scooters are considered "automatic motorcycles" by law.
In more recent years, several companies (including Piaggio, which owns and manufactures the Vespa brand) have begun to bridge the gap between old-school scooters and motorcycles. These scooters feature more powerful engines with larger displacement and are called "maxi-scooters." Suzuki's Burgman 650 is, as its name would suggest, a 650cc beast of a scooter. Honda's Silverwing, the younger sibling to its flagship Goldwing motorcycle, boasts 600cc.
Other companies have begun creating automatics that look like what most people who've never ridden would think of when hearing the word "motorcycle." Aprilia, Italian manufacturer of championship-winning sportbikes, unveiled the Mana for the 2009 model year. It's an 850cc automatic sportbike, and it looks so much like a traditional sportbike that you could be forgiven for not realizing it isn't. American manufacturer Riley occupies the other end of the style spectrum, offering a range of 750cc V-twin automatic cruisers that give a new meaning to "easy rider."