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An 8 gear automatic transmission

An automatic transmission (commonly "AT" or "Auto") is an automobile gearbox that can change gear ratios automatically as the vehicle moves, freeing the driver from having to shift gears manually. Similar but larger devices are also used for heavy-duty commercial and industrial vehicles and equipment.

Most automatic transmissions have a set selection of possible gear ranges, often with a parking pawl feature that will lock the output shaft of the transmission. Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) can change the ratios over a range rather than between set gear ratios. CVTs have been used for decades in two-wheeled scooters but have seen use in a few automobile models. Recently, however, CVT technology has gained greater acceptance among manufacturers and customers, especially in Nissan automobiles and gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

Some machines with limited speed ranges or fixed engine speeds, such as some forklift trucks and lawn mowers, only use a torque converter to provide a variable gearing of the engine to the wheels.

Comparison with manual transmission

Most cars sold in the United Statesmarker since the 1950s have been available with an automatic transmission, though it remains common practice to advertise the cheaper priced model with a manual transmission and treat the automatic as an upgrade. Conversely, automatic transmission is not very popular in Europe, with 80% of drivers opting for manual transmission. In most Asian markets and in Australia, automatic transmissions have also become very popular since the 1990s.

Automatic transmissions are easier to drive and consequently, in some jurisdictions, drivers passing their driving test in an automatic-transmission vehicle will not be licensed to drive a manual-transmission vehicle.

Automatic transmission modes

Conventionally, in order to select the mode, the driver would have to move a gear shift lever located on the steering column or on the floor next to him/her. In order to select gears/modes the driver must push a button in (called the shift lock button) or pull the handle (only on column mounted shifters) out. Some vehicles position selector buttons for each mode on the cockpit instead, freeing up space on the central console. Vehicles conforming to US Government standards must have the modes ordered P-R-N-D-L (left to right, top to bottom, or clockwise). Prior to this, quadrant-selected automatic transmissions often utilized a P-N-D-L-R layout, or similar. Such a pattern led to a number of deaths and injuries owing to unintentional gear mis-selection, as well as the danger of having a selector (when worn) jump into Reverse from Low gear during engine braking maneuvers.

Automatic Transmissions have various modes depending on the model and make of the transmission. Some of the common modes are:

Park (P) – This selection mechanically locks the transmission, restricting the car from moving in any direction. A parking pawl prevents the transmission—and therefore the vehicle—from moving, although the vehicle's non-drive wheels may still spin freely. For this reason, it is recommended to use the hand brake (or parking brake) because this actually locks (in most cases) the rear wheels and prevents them from moving. This also increases the life of the transmission and the park pin mechanism, because parking on an incline with the transmission in park without the parking brake engaged will cause undue stress on the parking pin. An efficiently-adjusted hand brake should also prevent the car from moving if a worn selector accidentally drops into reverse gear during early morning fast-idle engine warmups.

A car should be allowed to come to a complete stop before setting the transmission into park to prevent damage. Usually, park is one of only two selections in which the car's engine can be started. In many modern cars and trucks (notably those sold in the U.S.marker and Canadamarker), the driver must have the footbrake applied before the transmission can be taken out of park. The Park position is omitted on buses/coaches with automatic transmission (on which a parking pawl is not practical), which must be placed in neutral with the parking brakes set.

Reverse (R) – This puts the car into the reverse gear, giving the ability for the car to drive backwards. In order for the driver to select reverse they must come to a complete stop, push the shift lock button in (or pull the shift lever forward in the case of a column shifter) and select reverse. Not coming to a complete stop can cause severe damage to the transmission. Many modern automatic gearboxes have a safety mechanism in place, which does to some extent prevent (but does not completely avoid) inadvertently putting the car in reverse when the vehicle is moving. This mechanism usually consists of a solenoid-controlled physical barrier on either side of the Reverse position, which is electronically engaged by a switch on the brake pedal. Therefore, the brake pedal needs to be depressed in order to allow the selection of reverse. Some electronic transmissions prevent or delay engagement of reverse gear altogether while the car is moving.

Some shifters with a shift button allow the driver to freely move the shifter from R to N or D, or simply moving the shifter to N or D without actually depressing the button. However, the driver cannot put back the shifter to R without depressing the shift button to prevent accidental shiftings, especially at high speeds, which could damage the transmission.

Neutral/No gear (N)– This disconnects the transmission from the wheels so the car can move freely under its own weight. This is the only other selection in which the car can be started.

Drive (D)– This allows the car to move forward and accelerate through its range of gears. The number of gears a transmission has depends on the model, but they can commonly range from 3 (predominant before the 1990s), 4, 5 (losing popularity to 6-speed autos, though still favored by Chrysler and Honda/Acura) , 6 (found in VW/Audi Direct-Shift Gearbox, Toyota Camry V-6 models, the Chevrolet Malibu LTZ, Corvette, GM trucks, Pontiac G8, and most newer model Ford/Lincoln/Mercury vehicles), 7 (found in Mercedes 7G gearbox and Volkswagen DSG gearbox) and 8 in the newer models of Lexus and BMW cars. Some cars when put into D will automatically lock the doors or turn on the daytime running lamps.

OverDrive ([D], OD, or a boxed D) - This mode is used in some transmissions to allow early Computer Controlled Transmissions to engage the Automatic Overdrive. In these transmissions, Drive (D) locks the Automatic Overdrive off, but is identical otherwise. OD (Overdrive) in these cars is engaged under steady speeds or low acceleration at approximately 35-45 mph (approx. 72 km/h). Under hard acceleration or below 35-45 mph, the transmission will automatically downshift. Vehicles with this option should be driven in this mode unless circumstances require a lower gear.

Second (2 or S) – This mode limits the transmission to the first two gears, or more commonly locks the transmission in second gear. This can be used to drive in adverse conditions such as snow and ice, as well as climbing or going down hills in the winter time. Some vehicles will automatically upshift out of second gear in this mode if a certain rpm range is reached in order to prevent engine damage.

Although traditionally considered second gear, there are other names used. Chrysler models with a 3-speed automatic since the late 1980s have called this gear 3 while using the traditional names for Drive and Low. In addition, the Chevrolet Cobalt with the 3-speed automatic call this gear Intermediate (or I) while using the traditional names for the other gears.

First (1 or L) – This mode locks the transmission in first gear only. It will not accelerate through any gear range. This, like second, can be used during the winter season, or for towing.

As well as the above modes there are also other modes, dependent on the manufacturer and model. Some examples include;

  • D5 – In Hondas and Acuras equipped with 5-speed automatic transmissions, this mode is used commonly for highway use (as stated in the manual), and uses all five forward gears.
  • D4 – This mode is also found in Honda and Acura 4 or 5-speed automatics and only uses the first 4 gears. According to the manual, it is used for "stop and go traffic", such as city driving.
  • D3 or 3 – This mode is found in Honda, Acura and Pontiac 4-speed automatics and only uses the first 3 gears. According to the manual, it is used for "stop & go traffic", such as city driving.
  • + −, S and M – This is the manual selection of gears for automatics, such as Porsche's Tiptronic. The S and M feature can also be found in Chrysler and General Motors products such as the Dodge Magnum and Pontiac G6, as well as Toyota's Camry, Corolla, Fortuner, Previa and Innova. Mitsubishi, meanwhile does not have the M or S either, and instead has the + and -, which is separated from the rest of the shift modes; the same is true for some Peugeot products like Peugeot 206. Meanwhile, the driver can shift up and down at will by toggling the (console mounted) shift lever like a semi-automatic transmission. This mode may be engaged either through a selector/position or by actually changing the gears (e.g., tipping the gear-down paddles mounted near the driver's fingers on the steering wheel).
  • W - In some Mercedes-Benz models a W (Winter) mode can be engaged so that second gear is selected instead of first when pulling away, to reduce the likelihood of wheelspin on snow/ice.

Hydraulic automatic transmissions

The predominant form of automatic transmission is hydraulically operated, using a fluid coupling or torque converter and a set of planetary gearsets to provide a range of gear ratios.

Parts and operation

A hydraulic automatic transmission consists of the following parts:

  • Torque converter: A type of fluid coupling hydraulically connecting the engine to the transmission. It takes the place of a mechanical clutch, allowing the engine to remain running at rest without stalling. A torque converter differs from a fluid coupling in that it provides a variable amount of torque multiplication at low engine speeds, increasing "breakaway" acceleration. This is accomplished with a third member in the "coupling assembly" known as the stator, and by altering the shapes of the vanes inside the coupling in such a way as to curve the fluid's path into the stator. The stator captures the kinetic energy of the transmission fluid, in effect using the leftover force of it to enhance torque multiplication.
  • Planetary gearset: A compound planetary set whose bands and clutches are actuated by hydraulic servo controlled by the valve body, providing two or more gear ratios.
  • Clutches and bands: to effect gear changes, one of two types of clutches or bands are used to hold a particular member of the planetary gearset motionless, while allowing another member to rotate, thereby transmitting torque and producing gear reductions or overdrive ratios. These clutches are actuated by the valve body (see below), their sequence controlled by the transmission's internal programming. Principally, a type of device known as a sprag or roller clutch is used for routine upshifts/downshifts. Operating much as a ratchet, it transmits torque only in one direction, freewheeling or "overrunning" in the other. The advantage of this type of clutch is that it eliminates the sensitivity of timing a simultaneous clutch release/apply on two planetaries, simply "taking up" the drivetrain load when actuated,and releasing automatically when the next gear's sprag clutch assumes the torque transfer. The bands come into play for manually selected gears, such as low range or reverse, and operate on the planetary drum's circumference. Bands are not applied when drive/overdrive range is selected, the torque being transmitted by the sprag clutches instead. Bands are used for braking; the GM Turbo-Hydramatics incorporated this.
  • Valve body: hydraulic control center that receives pressurized fluid from a main pump operated by the fluid coupling/torque converter. The pressure coming from this pump is regulated and used to run a network of spring-loaded valves, check balls and servo pistons. The valves use the pump pressure and the pressure from a centrifugal governor on the output side (as well as hydraulic signals from the range selector valves and the throttle valve or modulator) to control which ratio is selected on the gearset; as the car and engine change speed, the difference between the pressures changes, causing different sets of valves to open and close. The hydraulic pressure controlled by these valves drives the various clutch and brake band actuators, thereby controlling the operation of the planetary gearset to select the optimum gear ratio for the current operating conditions. However, in many modern automatic transmissions, the valves are controlled by electro-mechanical servos which are controlled by the Engine Management System or a separate transmission controller. (See History and improvements below.)
  • Hydraulic & Lubricating Oil: called automatic transmission fluid (ATF), this component of the transmission provides lubrication, corrosion prevention, and a hydraulic medium to convey mechanical power. Primarily made from refined petroleum and processed to provide properties that promote smooth power transmission and increase service life, the ATF is one of the few parts of the automatic transmission that needs routine service as the vehicle ages.

The multitude of parts, along with the complex design of the valve body, originally made hydraulic automatic transmissions much more complicated (and expensive) to build and repair than manual transmissions. In most cars (except US family, luxury, sport-utility vehicle, and minivan models) they have usually been extra-cost options for this reason. Mass manufacturing and decades of improvement have reduced this cost gap.

Energy Efficiency

Hydraulic automatic transmissions are almost always less energy efficient than manual transmissions due mainly to viscous losses in the torque converter. A relatively small amount of additional energy is also required to pressurize the hydraulic control system which uses fluid pressure to determine the correct shifting patterns and operate the various automatic clutch mechanisms.

Manual transmissions use a mechanical clutch to transmit torque rather than a torque converter thus avoiding the primary source of loss in an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions also avoid the power requirement of the hydraulic control system by relying on the muscle power of the vehicle operator to disengage the clutch and actuate the gear levers, and the mental power of the operator to make appropriate gear ratio selections. Thus the manual transmission requires very little engine power to function, with the main power consumption due to drag from the gear train being immersed in the lubricating oil of the gearbox.

The energy efficiency of automatic transmission has increased with the introduction of the torque converter lock-up clutch which practically eliminates fluid losses when engaged. Modern automatic transmission also minimize energy usage and complexity by minimizing the amount of shifting logic that is done hydraulically. Typically control of the transmission has been transferred to computerized control systems which do not use fluid pressure for shift logic or actuation of clutching mechanisms.

The efficiency of an automatic transmission can exceed the efficiency of a manual transmission in turbocharged diesel applications. Turbo-boost is normally lost between gear changes in a manual that is not lost in gear changes in an automatic transmission. This also allows many automatic turbo charged diesel applications to have better acceleration than their manual transmission counterparts.

History and improvements

Modern automatic transmissions can trace their origins to an early "horseless carriage" gearbox that was developed in 1904 by the Sturtevant brothers of Bostonmarker, Massachusettsmarker. This unit had two forward speeds, the ratio change being brought about by flyweights that were driven by the engine. At higher engine speeds, high gear was engaged. As the vehicle slowed down and engine RPM decreased, the gearbox would shift back to low. Unfortunately, the metallurgy of the time wasn't up to the task and owing to the abruptness of the gear change, the transmission would often fail without warning.

The next significant phase in the automatic transmission's development occurred in 1908 with the introduction of Henry Ford's remarkable Model T. The Model T, in addition to being cheap and reliable by the standards of the day, featured a simple, two speed plus reverse planetary transmission whose operation was manually controlled by the driver using foot pedals. The pedals actuated the transmission's friction elements (bands and clutches) to select the desired gear. In some respects, this type of transmission was less demanding of the driver's skills than the contemporary, unsynchronized manual transmission, but still required that the driver know when to make a shift, as well as how to get the car off to a smooth start.

In 1934, both Reo and General Motors developed semi-automatic transmissions that were less difficult to operate than a fully manual unit. These designs, however, continued to use a clutch to engage the engine with the transmission. The General Motors unit, dubbed the "Automatic Safety Transmission," was notable in that it employed a power-shifting planetary gearbox that was hydraulically controlled and was sensitive to road speed, anticipating future development.

Parallel to the development in the 1930s of an automatically-shifting gearbox was Chrysler's work on adapting the fluid coupling to automotive use. Invented early in the 20th century, the fluid coupling was the answer to the question of how to avoid stalling the engine when the vehicle was stopped with the transmission in gear. Ironically, Chrysler itself never used the fluid coupling with any of its automatic transmissions, but did use it in conjunction with a hybrid manual transmission called "Fluid Drive" (the similar Hy-Drive used a torque converter). These developments in automatic gearbox and fluid coupling technology eventually culminated in the introduction in 1939 of the General Motors Hydra-Matic, the world's first mass-produced automatic transmission.

Available as an option on 1940 Oldsmobiles and later Cadillacs, the Hydra-Matic combined a fluid coupling with three hydraulically-controlled planetary gearsets to produce four forward speeds plus reverse. The transmission was sensitive to engine throttle position and road speed, producing fully automatic up- and down-shifting that varied according to operating conditions.

The Hydra-Matic was subsequently adopted by Cadillac and Pontiac, and was sold to various other automakers, including Bentley, Hudson, Kaiser, Nash, and Rolls-Royce. It also found use during World War II in some military vehicles. From 1950 to 1954 Lincoln cars were also available with the Hydra-Matic. Mercedes-Benz subsequently devised a four-speed fluid coupling transmission that was similar in principle to the Hydra-Matic, but of a different design.

Interestingly, the original Hydra-Matic incorporated two features which are widely emulated in today's transmissions. The Hydra-Matic's ratio spread through the four gears produced excellent "step off" and acceleration in first, good spacing of intermediate gears, and the effect of an overdrive in fourth, by virtue of the low numerical rear axle ratio used in the vehicles of the time. In addition, in third and fourth gear, the fluid coupling only handled a portion of the engine's torque, resulting in a high degree of efficiency. In this respect, the transmission's behavior was similar to modern units incorporating a lock-up torque converter.

In 1956, GM introduced the "Jetaway" Hydra-Matic, which was different in design than the older model. Addressing the issue of shift quality, which was an ongoing problem with the original Hydra-Matic, the new transmission utilized two fluid couplings, the primary one that linked the transmission to the engine, and a secondary one that replaced the clutch assembly that controlled the forward gearset in the original. The result was much smoother shifting, especially from first to second gear, but with a loss in efficiency and an increase in complexity. Another "innovation" for this new style Hydra-Matic was the appearance of a "Park" position on the selector. The original Hydra-Matic, which continued in production until the mid-1960s, still used the "Reverse" position for parking pawl engagement.

The first torque converter automatic, Buick's Dynaflow, was introduced for the 1948 model year. It was followed by Packard's Ultramatic in mid-1949 and Chevrolet's Powerglide for the 1950 model year. Each of these transmissions had only two forward speeds, relying on the converter for additional torque multiplication. In the early 1950s BorgWarner developed a series of three-speed torque converter automatics for American Motors, Ford Motor Company, Studebaker, and several other manufacturers in the US and other countries. Chrysler was late in developing its own true automatic, introducing the two-speed torque converter PowerFlite in 1953 and the three-speed TorqueFlite in 1956. The latter was the first to utilize the Simpson compound planetary gearset.

By the late 1960s most of the fluid-coupling four-speeds and two-speed transmissions had disappeared in favor of three-speed units with torque converters. Also around this time, whale oil was removed from automatic transmission fluid. By the early 1980s these were being supplemented and eventually replaced by overdrive-equipped transmissions providing four or more forward speeds. Many transmissions also adopted the lock-up torque converter (a mechanical clutch locking the torque converter pump and turbine together to eliminate slip at cruising speed) to improve fuel economy.

As engine computer (ECM) became more capable, much of the logic built into the transmission's valve body was offloaded to the ECM. (Some manufacturers use a separate computer dedicated to the transmission but sharing information with the engine management computer.) In this case, solenoids turned on and off by the computer control shift patterns and gear ratios, rather than the spring-loaded valves in the valve body. This allows for more precise control of shift points, shift quality, lower shift times, and (on some newer cars) semi-automatic control, where the driver tells the computer when to shift. The result is an impressive combination of efficiency and smoothness. Some computers even identify the driver's style and adapt to best suit it.

ZF Friedrichshafen and BMW were responsible for introducing the first six-speed (the ZF 6HP26 in the 2002 BMW E65 7-Series). Mercedes-Benz's 7G-Tronic was the first seven-speed in 2003, with Toyota introducing an 8-speed in 2007 on the Lexus LS 460. Mercedes-Benz unveiled a conventional automatic transmission with the torque converter replaced with a lock-up clutch called the AMG SPEEDSHIFT MCT.

Automatic transmission models

Some of the best known automatic transmission families include:

Automatic transmission families are usually based on Ravigneaux, , or Simpson planetary gear. Each uses some arrangement of one or two central sun gears, and a ring gear, with differing arrangements of planet gears that surround the sun and mesh with the ring. An exception to this is the Hondamatic line from Honda, which uses sliding gears on parallel axes like a manual transmission without any planetary gearsets. Although the Honda is quite different from all other automatics, it is also quite different from an automated manual transmission

Many of the above automated manual transmission exist in modified states which were created by racing enthusiasts and their mechanics by systematically re-engineering the transmission to achieve higher levels of performance. These are known as "performance transmissions". An example of a manufacturer of high performance transmissions of General Motors and Ford transmissions is PerformaBuilt.

Continuously variable transmissions

A different type of automatic transmission is the continuously variable transmission or CVT, which can smoothly alter its gear ratio by varying the diameter of a pair of belt or chain-linked pulleys, wheels or cones. Some continuously variable transmissions use a hydrostatic drive consisting of a variable displacement pump and a hydraulic motor to transmit power without gears. CVT designs are usually as fuel efficient as manual transmissions in city driving, but early designs lose efficiency as engine speed increases.

A slightly different approach to CVT is the concept of toroidal CVT or IVT (from infinitely variable transmission). These concepts provide zero and reverse gear ratios.

Some current hybrid vehicles, notably those of Toyota, Lexus and Ford Motor Company, have an "electronically-controlled CVT" (E-CVT). In this system, the transmission has fixed gears, but the ratio of wheel-speed to engine-speed can be continuously varied by controlling the speed of the third input to a differential using an electric motor-generator.

Manually controlled automatic transmissions

Most automatic transmissions offer the driver a certain amount of manual control over the transmission's shifts (beyond the obvious selection of forward, reverse, or neutral). Those controls take several forms:

  • Throttle kickdown: Most automatic transmissions include some means of forcing a downshift into the lowest possible gear if the throttle pedal is fully depressed. In many older designs, kickdown is accomplished by mechanically actuating a valve inside the transmission. Most modern designs use a solenoid-operated valve that is triggered by a switch on the throttle linkage or by the engine control unit (ECM) in response to an abrupt increase in engine power.
  • Mode Selection: Allows the driver to choose between preset shifting programs. For example, Economy mode saves fuel by upshifting at lower speeds, while Sport mode (aka Power or Performance) delays shifting for maximum acceleration. The modes also change how the computer responds to throttle input.
  • Low gear ranges: Conventionally, automatic transmissions have selector positions that allow the driver to limit the maximum ratio that the transmission may engage. On older transmissions, this was accomplished by a mechanical lockout in the transmission valve body preventing an upshift until the lockout was disengaged; on computer- controlled transmissions, the same effect is accomplished electronically. The transmission can still upshift and downshift automatically between the remaining ratios: for example, in the 3 range, a transmission could shift from first to second to third, but not into fourth or higher ratios. Some transmissions will still upshift automatically into the higher ratio if the engine reaches its maximum permissible speed in the selected range.
  • Manual controls: Some transmissions have a mode in which the driver has full control of ratio changes (either by moving the selector or through the use of buttons or paddles), completely overriding the automated function of the hydraulic controller. Such control is particularly useful in cornering, to avoid unwanted upshifts or downshifts that could compromise the vehicle's balance or traction. "Manumatic" shifters, first popularized by Porsche in the 1990s under the trade name Tiptronic, have become a popular option on sports cars and other performance vehicles. With the near-universal prevalence of electronically controlled transmissions, they are comparatively simple and inexpensive, requiring only software changes and the provision of the actual manual controls for the driver. The amount of true manual control provided is highly variable: some systems will override the driver's selections under certain conditions, generally in the interest of preventing engine damage. Since these gearboxes also have a throttle kickdown switch, it is impossible to fully exploit the engine power at low to medium engine speeds.
  • Second Gear Takeoff: Some automatics, particularly those fitted to larger capacity or high torque engines, either when '2' is manually selected or by engaging a "winter mode", will start off in second gear instead of first, and then not shift into a higher gear until returned to D. This is done to reduce torque multiplication when proceeding forward from a standstill in conditions where traction was limited - on snow or ice covered roads for example.

Some automatic transmissions modified or designed specifically for drag racing may also incorporate a transmission brake, or "trans-brake," as part of a manual valve body. Activated by electrical solenoid control, a trans-brake simultaneously engages the first and reverse gears, locking the transmission and preventing the input shaft from turning. This allows the driver of the car to raise the engine RPM against the resistance of the torque converter, then launch the car by simply releasing the trans-brake switch.

See also


  1. Almost Burned
  2. New 7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT MCT debuts

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