Your car is made up of thousands of components put together to create several important systems. You couldn’t drive a car without an engine, fuel, suspension, braking, or electrical system. Your car also wouldn’t go without the transmission.
According to a recent CarMax survey, 96 percent of Americans drive automatics. That means fewer people are purchasing manual transmissions, with fewer learning to shift manually. For automakers, it might be easier for production. But it also means fewer people will understand just how vital the transmission job is.
Even with an automatic transmission, there are still things you can do to improve shifting and create a better driving experience.
Why we prefer automatic transmission
In the early days of the automobile, all cars had manual transmissions, which required the driver to manually shift gears using a clutch pedal and a gear shift. However, as cars became more popular and more affordable, the need for easier-to-use and more convenient transmissions became apparent.
A Canadian engineer named Alfred Horner Munro developed the first automatic transmission in 1921. His design used a fluid coupling instead of a clutch, which allowed the car to shift gears automatically. However, Munro’s design could have been more successful and was never put into production.
In the following years, several other inventors and engineers worked on improving automatic transmissions. One of the most successful was the Hydra-Matic transmission, developed by General Motors in the 1930s. The Hydra-Matic transmission used a combination of fluid couplings and planetary gears to shift gears automatically. It was first introduced in the 1940 Oldsmobile.
Over time, automatic transmissions became more popular among car buyers, and by the 1960s, most cars sold in the United States were equipped with automatic transmissions. There were several reasons for this shift in preference, including:
- Automatic transmissions are much easier to use than manual transmissions – push and go!
- Automatic transmissions require less effort from the driver, which can be more convenient in heavy traffic or when driving long distances.
- Modern automatic transmissions are designed to shift gears at the optimal time, which can improve fuel efficiency compared to manual transmissions.
- Some automatic transmissions, such as dual-clutch transmissions, can shift gears faster than a human can, improving the car’s acceleration and overall performance.
- Modern automatic transmissions are more reliable than older designs, which were prone to mechanical failure.
While some car enthusiasts still prefer manual transmissions for greater control and driving experience, automatic transmissions have become the more practical and convenient choice for most drivers. In the United States and across the world, automatics are becoming the mainstay.
How an automatic transmission works
An automatic transmission uses a complex system of gears, hydraulics, and electronics to shift gears automatically as the car accelerates and decelerates. It uses:
Torque converter – The torque converter is a fluid coupling that connects the engine to the transmission. It allows the engine to keep running while the car is stopped, and it also multiplies the torque produced by the engine to help the car accelerate.
Planetary gear sets – Inside the transmission are several planetary gear sets, which consist of a sun gear, a planet gear, and a ring gear. The transmission can change the gear ratio between the engine and the wheels by locking or unlocking these gears.
Hydraulic system – The transmission uses a hydraulic system to control the planetary gear sets. A pump in the transmission pressurizes transmission fluid, which is then used to activate hydraulic pistons that engage or disengage the gears.
Valve body – The valve body is a control center for the hydraulic system. It contains several valves that control the flow of fluid to the various parts of the transmission, allowing it to shift gears automatically.
Electronic controls – Modern automatic transmissions also use electronic controls to manage the shifting process. The transmission control module (TCM) uses sensors to monitor the car’s speed, throttle position, and other variables, and it uses this information to determine the optimal time to shift gears.
When the car is in motion, the transmission shifts gears automatically based on the driver’s inputs and the TCM’s commands. When the car needs to accelerate, the transmission shifts to a lower gear to provide more power, and when the car needs to slow down, the transmission shifts to a higher gear to save fuel. The process is seamless and automatic, making it easy and convenient for the driver.
Ways to improve your driving with an automatic transmission
You drive an automatic. You like the convenience. But you also want to enhance your driving experience. What can you do?
Learn to use the additional gears – Modern automatic transmissions come with additional gears, such as “sport mode”, allowing the driver to shift gears manually. Learning to use these additional gears can improve your driving in several ways. For example, “sport mode” can provide a more responsive and engaging driving experience, while “manual mode” can give you more control over the car’s acceleration and deceleration. Take the time to study your owner’s manual and learn how to use these additional gears, and experiment with them to see how they affect your driving.
Maintain engine performance – Your car’s engine performance is essential to the performance of your automatic transmission. If your engine is not running at its best, it can cause your transmission to work harder, leading to damage and decreased fuel efficiency. To maintain engine performance, be sure to follow the recommended maintenance schedule for your car, including regular oil changes, air filter replacements, and spark plug replacements.
Have proper tire alignment – If your tires are not aligned correctly, it can cause uneven wear on the tires, affecting the handling and performance of your car. To ensure proper tire alignment, have your tires checked and aligned regularly by a professional mechanic.
Ensure correct tire size – Using the correct tire size is also crucial to the performance of your automatic transmission. If your tires are too large or too small, it can affect the gear ratios in your transmission, which can cause it to work harder and decrease fuel efficiency. To ensure you’re using the correct tire size, refer to your car’s owner’s manual or consult a professional mechanic.
Properly maintain your transmission – Proper maintenance of your automatic transmission is essential to its performance and longevity. Be sure to follow the recommended maintenance schedule for your car’s transmission, including regular fluid changes and filter replacements. Additionally, check for any signs of transmission problems, such as slipping gears or fluid leaks, and have them repaired promptly to avoid further damage.
How much do you know about your car’s automatic transmission? How can we help you maintain it?