Automatic Transmission: The Basics of Driving Stick

We’ve all heard the terms “driving stick” or “driving an automatic”, but do you know what these phrases actually mean when you’re behind the wheel? These types of driving actually refer to the kind of transmission your car has. Both types of transmissions require different steps to make the car run and behave how you want it to.

In this post, we’ll be covering the basics of automatic transmissions, and the info you’ll need to know to maintain and operate a car with this design.

How to Maintain your Automatic Transmission

There are few things you should keep an eye on to ensure your transmission has a long and healthy life:

  1. Go to a mechanic to flush out your transmission fluid every 2 years, or as needed. You can check your fluid level by pulling out the transmission dipstick found at the back of the engine and checking the color and level of the liquid. Both automatic and manual transmissions (or stick shifts) use transmission fluid to lubricate and cool internal parts. The difference is that automatic transmissions also depend on this fluid to transmit power hydraulically which exposes the fluid to a lot more heat than in a stick shift model. That’s why clean fluid is especially important in automatics. You can check out this article on signs your transmission fluid needs changed for more tips.
  2. Getting regular oil changes isn’t only important to the health of your transmission, but to every moving part of your car. It’s recommended that you change your oil every 3,000 miles. Having this done is fairly quick and inexpensive depending on where you go, so be sure to stay on top of it.
  3. Keep an eye out for signs of damage to your transmission. The last thing you want if for a small problem to become a larger and probably very expensive problem. Signs that you might need a transmission repair are things like grinding noises when you switch gears, any leaked fluid left under your car when it’s been parked, or difficulty switching gears. Oftentimes, a problem with your transmission can takes months to present itself, so keep an eye out for little signs so you can catch it early.
  4. If you’re not sure how often you should get transmission work done, take a look at your owner manual to find the recommended maintenance period for your specific model of car. The more you know, the better off you'll be!

How Do I Make it Move?

Cars don’t just move in the direction you want by simply turning the steering wheel. In order to control your vehicle, you need to use an automatic gear shift, or the thingamajig next to the driver’s seat with a bunch of letters and numbers when you drive a car with an automatic transmission. That “thingamajig” is a gear shift lever, and those seemingly random letters and numbers represent gear ratios that can change the movement of your vehicle. These letters and numbers will be different than those you would find on a manual transmission, so let’s take a look at what those different gears on the automatic shifter mean.

P is for Park

When you want to park your car, P is your friend. P locks the output shaft and keeps your car from rolling away. This is done with the help of a small internal part called a parking pawl that acts as a wedge in the output shaft holding it in place and stopping your car. When you’re parked on a flat surface, using only the park gear selection is totally fine. If you’re on a hill, however, make sure to use your parking brake as well. This decreases stress on the P gear and can actually increase the longevity of your automatic transmission. Don't forget to take off the parking brake next time you drive though, or you'll be driving with an unpleasant screeching sound.

R is for Reverse

Use the R gear when you want to back dat car up. But before you move the gear shifter into reverse, make sure your foot is on the brake pedal. If you try to change gears from moving forward to moving backward without engaging the brake pedal, you run the risk of damaging your transmission or causing your car to accelerate suddenly and forcefully. You may not even have to worry about this, however, as many modern vehicles have a safety feature composed of solenoid valves that disable changing the gear selector into reverse when already moving forward. But like, still -- don’t do it.

N is for Neutral

The N position is your Switzerland, your neutral. You probably won’t shift into this gear very often -- it disconnects the automatic transmission from the drive wheels, and is mostly used for towing or pushing cars.

D is for Drive

D is for drive, or what you’ll be doing 99 percent of the time you’re behind the wheel. Drive launches a full range of forward gear ratios, which change based on speed.

L is for Low

Drop it, drop it low when more power is needed at lower vehicle speeds. Low means the transmission is locked in first gear. The only scenarios in which you might use this gear is when driving in winter weather or for towing.

If you ever need an on-the-spot refresher about what means what with your automatic transmission gear shift, you should also be able to find all of this information in your owner manual (this should be kept in your glove box). Now that you know about automatic gear shift, are you ready to shift gears and learn about more basic driving maneuvers?