Automatic transmission

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Transmission types



Continuously variable
Bicycle gearing

An automatic transmission is an automobile gearbox that can change gear ratios automatically as the vehicle moves, thus freeing the driver from having to shift gears manually. (Similar but larger devices are also used for railroad locomotives.)

Most cars sold in the United States since the 1950s have been equipped with an automatic transmission. This has, however, not been the case in Europe and much of the rest of the world. Automatic transmissions, particularly earlier ones, reduce fuel efficiency and power. Where fuel is expensive and, thus, engines generally smaller, these penalties are more burdensome. In recent years, automatic transmissions have significantly improved in their ability to support high fuel efficiency but manual transmissions are still generally more efficient. (This balance may finally shift with the introduction of practical continuously variable transmissions; see below.)

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.

However, some simple machines with limited speed ranges and/or fixed engine speeds only use a torque converter to provide a variable gearing of the engine to the wheels. Typical examples include forklift trucks and some modern lawn mowers.

Recently manufacturers have begun to make continuously variable transmissions commonly available (earlier models such as the Subaru Justy did not popularize CVT). These designs can change the ratios over a range rather than between set gear ratios. Even though CVTs have been used for decades in a few vehicles (e.g. DAF saloons and the Volvo 340 series that succeeded them, and later the Subaru Justy), the technology has recently gained greater acceptance among manufacturers and customers.

Hydraulic automatic transmissions

A cut-away model of a torque converter

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 torque multiplication.

Parts and operation

A hydraulic automatic transmission consists of the following parts:

  • Fluid coupling or torque converter: A hydraulic device connecting the engine and the transmission. It takes the place of a mechanical clutch, allowing the engine to remain running at rest without stalling. A torque converter is a fluid coupling that also provides a variable amount of torque multiplication at low engine speeds, increasing "breakaway" acceleration.
  • Planetary gearset: A compound planetary set whose bands and clutches are actuated by hydraulic servos controlled by the valve body, providing two or more gear ratios.
  • Valve body: hydraulic control center that receives pressurised 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.)

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.

History and improvements

See also Evolution of the Automatic Transmission

Oldsmobile's 1940 models featured Hydra-Matic drive, the first mass-production fully automatic transmissions. Initially an Olds exclusive, Hydra-Matic had a fluid coupling (not a torque converter) and three planetary gearsets providing four speeds plus reverse. Hydra-Matic was subsequently adopted by Cadillac and Pontiac, and was sold to various other automakers, including Bentley, Hudson, Kaiser, Nash, and Rolls-Royce. From 1950 to 1954 Lincoln cars were also available with GM Hydra-Matic. Mercedes-Benz subsequently devised a four-speed fluid coupling transmission that was similar in principle to Hydra-Matic, but did not share the same design.

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 torque converter for additional gear reduction. In the early 1950s Borg-Warner developed a series of three-speed torque converter automatics for American Motors Corporation, 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.

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. 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 impeller and turbine together to eliminate slip at cruising speed) to improve fuel economy.

As the engine computers became more and more capable, even more of the valve body's functionality was offloaded to them. These transmissions, introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, remove almost all of the control logic from the valve body, and place it in into the engine computer. (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 AG and BMW were responsible for introducing the first five-speed automatic (the ZF 5HP18 in the 1992 BMW E34 5-Series) and 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 Motor Company introducing an 8-speed in 2007 on the Lexus LS 460 and 600.

Automatic transmission modes

In order to select the mode, the driver must move a gear shift lever which can be located on the steering column or on the floor next to the driver. 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.

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 pin prevents the transmission from moving forward (although wheels, depending on the drive train, can still spin freely), it is recommended to use the hand brake (or emergency brake) because this actually locks the wheels and prevents them from moving, and increases the life of the transmission and the park mechanism. A car should be allowed to come to a complete stop before setting transmission into park to prevent damage. Park is one of only two selections in which the car can be started. In some cars (notably those sold in the US), the driver must have the footbrake depressed before the transmission can be taken out of park.

Reverse (R) – This puts the car into the reverse gear, giving the ability for the car to back up. In order for the driver to select reverse they must come to a complete stop, and push the shift lock button in and select reverse. Not coming to a complete stop can cause severe damage to 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 a range of gears. The number of gears a transmission has depends on the model, but they can commonly range from 3, 4 (the most common), 5, 6 (found in VW/Audi Direct Shift Gearbox), and 8 in the new model of Lexus cars.

  • D4 – In Honda and Acura automatics this mode is used commonly for highway use (as stated in the manual) and uses all 4 forward gears.
  • D3 – This is also found in Honda and Acura automatics and only uses the first 3 gears and according to the manual it is used for stop & go traffic such as city driving.
  • + - and M – This is the manual selection of gears for automatics with Tiptronic. The driver can shift up and down at their will.

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.

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 towing.

Some cars when put into D will automatically lock the doors or turn on the daytime running lights.

Automatic Transmission Models

Some of the best known automatic transmission families include:

Automatic transmission families are usually based on Ravigneaux, Lepelletier, or Simpson planetary gearsets. 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.

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 a switch on the throttle linkage that will force the transmission to downshift into the next lower ratio if the throttle is fully engaged. The switch generally only functions up to a certain road speed, so as to prevent a downshift that would overrev the engine. Some transmissions also have a part-throttle kickdown, eliminating the need to "floorboard" the throttle to downshift.
  • 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: Many transmissions have switches or 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 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.

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

External links