Driving an auto
How does an auto work?
Driving an auto
These days, automatic gearboxes or transmissions are becoming more and more popular, partly due to their overwhelming acceptance in the bigger car markets like the United States and China. In fact, many more premium vehicles are only available in automatic, while even entry-level cars usually now have an automatic option in the line-up.
If you decide you’re ready to make the move from driving a manual car to an auto’, there are a few things to take into consideration first.
How does an auto work?
We’re not getting into the mechanics here, but rather how an automatic gearbox works for the driver.
Essentially, an automatic gearbox changes the gear ratios automatically when the situation demands it, keeping the engine operating at the most efficient RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) or engine speed.
There is still a gear selector lever, and the modes that can be selected are usually D (Drive), N (Neutral), P (Park), R (Reverse) and M (Manual). More gearboxes might also have an S (Sport) mode.
Here’s the first tip: to start an automatic, the gear selector usually needs to be in the Park position. If you’ve left your car in Drive, your car simply won’t start. Some cars also need the brake pedal to be depressed – even if this isn’t the case, it is a safe habit to get into.
Once the engine is started, keep your right foot on the brake pedal and move the gear selector into either Drive or Reverse, depending on whether you want to go backwards or forwards.
Release the brake pedal, lightly depress the accelerator and you will move in the selected direction. When you’re going forwards, you don’t have to worry about what gear you’re in as the gearbox will select the most efficient one.
When you need to stop the car, all you need to do is take your foot off the accelerator and depress the brake pedal. The gearbox will change down to keep the gearbox in the most efficient gear.
Putting the gearbox in Sport mode
The Drive mode is the most efficient mode in terms of fuel economy – it changes to a higher gear as soon as it can to keep the engine revs down, and it leaves the car in a higher gear for longer while you’re slowing down.
The Sport mode does the opposite. When you’re accelerating, it holds onto the gear for longer, changing at higher revs for better performance (at the expense of fuel economy), and when you are braking it changes down quickly for better responsiveness when you do accelerate again, and for better engine braking (as well as sportier exhaust notes). On some cars, the Sport mode will also affect engine mapping, basically telling the car’s accelerator to be more sensitive for optimised engine performance. It can even affect the car’s suspension, making it firmer.
How do you use the ‘Manual’ mode?
Most automatic gearboxes have a Manual mode that the driver can select. Usually this is selected by pushing the gear selector to the left or right, to the M mode. There, next to the M indicator, ‘+’ and ‘–’ signs show which direction the selector then needs to be tapped to change either up or down a gear.
Some sportier and premium vehicles, such as the Toyota Supra and many Lexus vehicles , will also have paddle shifters fixed to the back of the steering wheel. Drivers can use these to change gears up or down for a more engaging driving experience.
What do you do with your left foot?
This can be a battle for people used to driving a manual and stamping firmly on the clutch pedal to change gear and when you need to brake. If you push hard on the brake pedal thinking it’s the clutch pedal, you’ll experience a harsh and unpleasant reminder that you’re driving an auto!
The trick is to get your left foot well out of the way when you’re driving. Either plant it firmly to the floor, away from the pedals, or tuck it behind your right leg, against the base of the seatand leave it there…
Going down hills
If you’re getting used to driving an automatic vehicle, you can just drive down a hill using the brake pedal to regulate the speed. If you are looking to get better wear out of your brake pads, for example, you can use the Manual mode of your gearbox to select a lower gear, which will use the engine to slow the vehicle down for you, so that you don’t need to use the brakes all the way down the descent.
Going up steep hills
Again, this is a good time to use the Manual mode of the gearbox, especially if you are towing something heavy or carrying a heavy load. Modern automatic gearboxes are very intuitive and will usually select the most efficient gear, but you might want to ‘tell’ the transmission to remain in a lower gear all the way up a steep hill, rather than changing to a higher gear, dropping engine speed and then having to change back to a lower gear.
Coming to a stop
When you come to a stop, the gearbox will select first gear, ready for pulling off. All you need to do is keep your right foot on the brake pedal while you are stopped (or engage the handbrake), and then release it for pulling off.
Some drivers of automatic cars never use the Neutral position, but it is there for a reason. If you are at a traffic light or stopped for a lengthy time, select Neutral and engage the handbrake. It allows for a smoother transition between being stopped and engaging a gear than Park mode does. It also allows for a transmission to be shifted from Reverse to Park or vice versa, without damaging the gearbox.
As with a manual car, if you select Neutral and don’t engage the brakes, the car could roll.
If you have a licence to drive a manual car, you are legally allowed to drive an automatic. The reverse is not true, though, and you are not legally allowed to drive a manual vehicle if you only have an automatic licence.