AAMCO Centers of Southern California


AAMCO Centers of Southern California

An Introduction to Automatic Transmissions

Your transmission is one of the most essential — and complicated — parts of your vehicle. Understanding the basics can help prevent poor performance and pricey repairs.

AAMCO Socal  | 10/26/2020  | Transmission Advice

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An Introduction to Automatic Transmissions

When you hop in your vehicle each day and head down the road, you may likely notice the slight pull and lurch that occurs when you press the pedal to pick up speed. As you depress the gas pedal, a series of highly-complicated mechanical processes occur at once below the surface — the most complex of which is carried out by your automatic transmission.

Introduced in the 1920s, the automatic transmission replaced the more complicated manual transmission system. This automation of the gear shift mechanics has helped many individuals learn how to operate a motor vehicle with ease, increasing the safety and convenience of driving.

While you may have an automatic transmission, do you fully understand what is happening when your vehicle mysteriously shifts between gears? Let’s take a closer look at transmissions and how the automatic transmission works.

Types of Transmissions

While you are likely familiar with automatic transmissions, there are a variety of transmissions styles used in vehicles:

1. Manual Transmission

You have probably been asked if you can “drive a stick” — a reference to most early-model cars’ manual shifting style before the introduction of the automatic transmission. In a manual transmission, a gearbox operates through a friction clutch process activated between the depressed shift pedal and the gear shift — allowing a drifter to shift gears and power the vehicle automatically. Operating a manual transmission requires a trained skill and can cause the engine to stall when not completed correctly. Still, this more “hands-on” feel has made manual transmission a favorite for many drivers today.

2. Automatic Transmission

An automatic transmission allows for the automated shifting of gears while driving by using a torque converter to influence the engine’s rotational energy. As the most common transmission style in vehicles today, an automatic transmission makes the driving experience more comfortable and smoother. However, the highly-complex torque system is prone to more breakdowns and costly repairs.

3. Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

The driver experiences a similar feel as an automatic transmission in a CVT, but without the gears. Instead, a series of belts and pulleys work with the vehicle's computer system to create varying ratios to find the perfect speed and power. While less complicated, a CVT offers a more automatic shifting experience but will feel more electronic than the powerful hum and shift of a standard vehicle. 

4. Semi-Automatic/Dual-Clutch Transmissions

This transmission style is a hybrid of a fully automatic and manual transmission. This style utilizes a set of pneumatics to allow the driver to control both the benefits of automatic transmission and manual control — allowing for quick shifts.

How An Automatic Transmission Works

The operation of an automatic transmission is truly a wonder of modern industrial design and requires a bit of technical knowledge to truly grasp. At its most basic, automatic transmissions achieve their automation of gear shifting through hydraulic power — combining a torque or fluid converter with your vehicle’s gears to help the engine move between ranges of power while accelerating and decelerating. 

The engine will send power to the torque converter pump, which then moves transmission fluid through the system. The torque converter turbine will send a powerful stream of fluid that creates a vortex power rotation to spin the turbine and central shaft. This power is then converted to the transmission’s planetary gear set.

The fluid activates the planetary gear train, which utilizes a set of bands and clutches to hold, release, and activates the gears that increase and decrease engine torque, giving you the power you need at the speed you’re going.

Learn How To Care For Your Transmission

With your transmission being such an essential part of your vehicle, ensuring that it is well cared for and maintained is key for helping your entire car function. Like any other part of your vehicle, the transmission can and will wear down over time. When your transmission fails, it can take your vehicle off the road and cause costly repairs. 

Here are five tips to ensuring your automatic transmission stays in top shape:

1. Follow your vehicle’s recommended service schedule 

A consistent routine of taking your vehicle in for an inspection and fluid replacement will help keep your transmission maintained, as well as help uncover any problems that need to be repaired.

2. Consider an automatic transmission flush

Based on your vehicle’s Recommended Maintenance Schedule, your mechanic may recommend that you complete a full transmission flush. This process involves using specialized equipment to remove all of the unit’s transmission fluid and replace it with new, clean fluid. This can also help clean out the transmission from any buildup or grime. 

3. Avoid shifting gears while your car is in motion

Now that you know how a transmission works, you can see why shifting gears unnecessarily while in motion can cause damage and wear to your transmission. 

4. Allow your car to warm up before shifting and driving

Especially in colder months, allowing your vehicle to warm up after the initial startup can help heat the fluid in your transmission and help lubricate the system for better performance. 

5. Always change your transmission filter when necessary

Whenever you take your vehicle in for routine maintenance or repairs, ask to have your transmission filter checked and replaced if worn. A clean filter will help keep damaging particulate matter out of your transmission and transmission fluid.

Care for Your Transmission & Drive with Confidence

Now that you know more about your car’s transmission and how an automatic transmission helps your vehicle maintain the correct speed and power, you can better understand how to operate your vehicle more effectively. By taking care to check and maintain your transmission routinely, you can drive in confidence while avoiding the costly repairs that can come with a worn-out transmission. 

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