What is Automatic Transmission


This is probably considered as common knowledge for those who know their cars and mechanics. But for greenhorns, one of the things that need to be exhaustively discussed is the type of transmission that drives your car.

In the past, cars are commonly fitted with manual transmission (MT). After the mass production/commercialization of automatic transmission in the 1930s, the way people drive and see their car also changed.

Currently, it is the most popular transmission system in the global market. Also called auto, AT, n-speed automatic, self-shifting transmission, there is a little question this system is the “present” in the automobile world.

In the US, cars are mostly run by an automatic transmission. In fact, it is quite unusual to see a ride with manual gearing mechanics. (Gone were the days when we vehemently slam our accelerator and shift into third to speed up.) If we take a step back, we’ll see that most American car models are available in automatic as early as the 1950s. In parts of Asia and Australia, AT became common in the 1980s – 1990s.

For such reason, this article will introduce you to the most ubiquitous and influential transmission system of today.

History of Automatic Transmission

If we talk about design principle, the very origin of modern AT goes back to the “horseless carriage” gearbox that was invented in 1904. This was conceptualized by the Sturtevant brothers in Boston. The box was designed with two forward speed, with ratio change made possible by flyweights driven by the engine. Though ingenious, it took several years before this idea was integrated into vehicles.

In 1921, the first fully automatic transmission was invented in Canada by Alfred Munro under the patent CA 235757. The initial market commercialization is considered a big step in the history of the automobile industry. Henry Ford was the first to integrate the principle into his Model T in 1908. It was a reliable option that featured a two speed plus a reverse transmission. These functions were mostly controlled using pedals. The pedals enabled the driver to select the desired gear. Though it was less difficult to learn compared to the older model of manual transmission, the driver will still need basic knowledge of gear shifts and the engine starts up.

General Motors adopted the idea of AT that uses hydraulic fluid (this was invented by Brazilian engineers) in the 1930s. They started to mass produce “Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic” transmission. In 1934, they also released semi-automatic models that were less difficult to drive. But these clunks of metal are still far from the ATs that you’re driving today.

(Trivia: Automatic transmissions are battle-tested, literally speaking. During World War II, the US developed tank models that are AT to make terrain navigation much easier.)

Fortunately, car tech persistently evolved with an overwhelming speed for the past decades. Many of the presents AT cars are computer-guided. Technically, there really is an extra brain that helps you drive (these are called transmission control unit or TCU).

Hydraulic auto-transmissions are the most popular type found in present vehicles. But there are also other types such as semi-automatic and continuously variable transmission.

Why Europeans Still Use Manual Transmission?

People always wonder why many European countries still prefer cars with manual transmission over automatic. In case you don’t know, more than 85% of the active vehicles in the UK runs with MT system. If you’re thinking that ATs are hated, you’re probably wrong. They are liked. But MTs sell better for a couple of reason.

  • One of the most common reasons would be ‘shift-stick’ cars are way cheaper. Well, not all. But the majority of them is pretty much affordable compared to automatic. To give you an idea, a standard MT car is usually 1000 euros cheaper than a standard AT car. That’s a lot of money that you can save (especially because cars and insurances are more expensive in Europe than in North America).
  • It is also a “cultural thing”. The automatic transmission is usually associated with “laziness”, “decadence”, and “unnecessary luxury”. As such, most would opt to buy MT cars since driving is not essentially for luxury purposes.
  • Historically, gasoline is more expensive in most parts of Europe. In order to maximize fuel mileage, manual transmissions are usually preferred because most models have slow fuel burn rate.
  • License system is different. There’s a choice between full license and automatic license. In case you own the latter, you are not allowed to drive a manual transmission car. A full license, on the other hand, permits you to drive any type of car transmission. This gives owner less hassle.

Why People Prefer Automatic Transmission?

  • Learning Curve

    It is easier to learn. A lot easier. This is probably the most common answer that you’ll hear among AT drivers. Unlike your everyday manual transmission automobile, AT cars don’t have a clutch pedal and manual gear shift system provided by the shift-stick (or gear stick).

    The reduced number of pedal and stick allows those with disabilities to drive for themselves. It lacks the extensive bodily coordination (from your feet to your hand, and up to your eyes) that the manual transmission requires. This is a plus for beginners. After all, you do not want to stress yourself while driving. It will also give you the extra energy to focus on the road.

    For those driving along uphill roads with stoplights will understand this. Managing your gear as you move forward the slope is an issue for many. Most of the time, an inexperienced driver will crash the hood of his/her car to other vehicles. That alone is a good reason why AT models are much more preferable. All in all, it also reduces the risk when driving by lowering the level of difficulty.

  • Cheaper Maintenance

    For modern ATs, maintenance cost is relatively less. You simply need to regularly check transmission fluid levels and replace the filter once or twice a decade. And you’re good to go. It’s simple and affordable.

    Cars equipped with a manual transmission may usually be cheaper but the maintenance cost is dazing. Once your clutch is worn out (around 50k to 60k miles), you’ll need to replace it anew. This will usually cost you over $100, not including the professional fee that you need to pay in your local car shop.

  • Less Stressful During Rush Hours

    You will grasp this point when you’re stuck in the middle of a burgeoning traffic while driving a manual transmission automobile. Whereas ATs allow you to freely coast in traffic, MT will keep you restless due to the repetitive gear shifting motion. With an automatic transmission, you’ll arrive in your abode in a much better mood after conquering a never-ending congestion. This is a win for AT and it’s not even close.

    In the past, MT purists would argue that automatic transmissions burn your fuel faster because it needs extra juice to work. In the US, the issue on fuel is also not a big of a deal since it is cheaper compared to other European and Asian countries. It is also good that many modern ATs have eight-speed to prevent the constant hard revving of the engine. In fact, top-of-the-line ATs present superior fuel economy.

  • Reduces Stalling

    It is always embarrassing when your ride suddenly stalls in the middle of a traffic. This thing rarely happens with ATs because it instantly adjusts your gears vis-à-vis road condition/angle.

Reminders When Driving An Automatic

  • Driving hard without decent warm up.

    During winter, car fluids move slowly and thicken. As a result, revving the engine hard and driving at high-speed without good warm-up will eventually lead to serious internal damage.‘Launching’ (sudden acceleration of car from a standstill) will also damage the bands in your transmission when done again and again. While impressive to look at, it is a no-no when it comes to mechanical optimization.

  • Undermining the gas tank.

    Keeping your gas tank low every time will incrementally decrease the lubrication of your ride. Always check the level of your gas tank.

  • Shifting gears while the car is moving.

    This habit will wear your gearbox very fast (and that is an expensive part, to remind you). This is because you are forcing your transmission to change direction instantaneously. When shifting from D to R (or vice versa), just wait for your car to stop rolling. In addition, only hit P (park) when in full stop. You could easily damage your lock pin when shifting to P while still in motion.

  • Coasting in neutral is a sin.

    If you’re trying to save some money, coasting in neutral is not the right way of doing it. Though it saves some amount of fuel and cuts the oil supply, your transmission will also not get enough lubrication for efficient operation. As an end result, it will eventually wear your whole transmission line.

  • Hitting N (neutral) at stop lights.

    This is because people tend to forget that their gear is set in neutral when light signals green. By revving the engine while still in neutral, you’ll unnecessarily burn your fuel.

On the other note, for other informative car related articles, check out our tips on how to make a car go faster and how to change car’s tire. Furthermore, find out more about hypercars and supercars.