Automatic Cars – What Are They and How to Drive

Cars in the UK are moving away from manual cars – in 2021 alone, 54% of new cars sold in Britain were automatic, compared to around 20% a decade ago. Petrol and diesel cars will be phased out starting in 2030 after the sale of new combustion engines is banned. Electric vehicles, which do not require clutches (so essentially automatic), will take their place.

An automatic car, a car fitted with an automatic transmission, is a vehicle that can change gears automatically without requiring the driver to manually change gear.

How Does an Automatic Car Work?

An automatic has a different transmission system than the usual manual cars that take care of shifting gears for the driver.

Instead of using a clutch pedal and a gear stick like in a manual car, the driver just has a gear selector with different modes, typically Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive. Some performance cars will have an additional Sports mode.

Modern automatic transmissions also come with electronic control units (ECUs) that monitor speed, accelerator pedal pressure, and other factors. The ECU then uses this information to decide when to shift gears automatically.

Manual vs Automatic

Cars with manual transmissions, also simply called a ‘manual’, require the driver to change gears manually. A driving enthusiast who enjoys the hands-on experience of changing gear will appreciate their higher level of control and engagement with this type of gearbox.

On the other hand, automatic cars can change gears automatically, fully removing the need for manual gear shifting. They are generally easier to drive, particularly in heavy traffic where there’s a lot of stopping and starting or on rough terrain. Automatic cars provide convenience and a more relaxed driving experience. There is also low to no risk of stalling a car as the driving doesn’t rely on clutch control.

Depending on the driver’s preference, driving conditions, and personal convenience, both types of transmission have their pros and cons.

Besides the traditional automatic transmission (torque converter automatic), there are a couple of more types of automatic transmissions found on modern vehicle, some common ones are:

Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) also known as Direct-shift gearbox

A dual-clutch transmission uses two separate clutches for odd and even gears, allowing for quicker and smoother gear shifts compared to traditional ATs. While one clutch engages a gear, the other prepares the next one, leading to faster response times. DCTs are often found in Volkswagen Golf and Polo and other sports cars.

Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT)

CVT doesn’t have gears like conventional transmissions. By using belts and pulleys, it provides an infinite number of gear ratios, similar to bicycle gears, enabling the engine to operate at its most efficient RPM at any given speed. CVTs are known for their fuel efficiency.

How to Drive an Automatic Car Step by Step

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to drive an automatic car:

Familiarise Yourself with the Controls: Before you start driving, take a moment to understand the different controls in the car. Locate the gear selector, which is usually positioned in the centre console – this will either be a stick or buttons. It typically has modes like Park (P), Reverse (R), Neutral (N), and Drive (D). In terms of your foot control – remember there is a brake pedal and accelerator pedal and NO third pedal which would be a clutch pedal in a manual car.

close up of automatic gear shifter

Start the Engine: Insert the key into the ignition or use the start-stop button and start the engine. Ensure the car is in Park (P) mode before starting the engine. The park mode will not always be a traditional-looking handbrake but could even be a simple button with a ‘P’ on it.

Release the Parking Brake: If the parking brake is engaged, release it before moving. Some automatic cars disengage the parking brake automatically when you shift into Drive (D) or Reverse (R).

Shift into Drive (D): Place your foot on the brake pedal and shift the gear selector into Drive (D) mode to allow the car to move forward.

Accelerate and Brake Smoothly: With your foot still on the brake pedal, slowly release pressure and begin to apply gentle pressure on the accelerator pedal. When you need to slow down or stop, gently apply the brakes with your right foot. The rest of it is as you would drive normally.

Stopping the car: When you slow down, the gears will ‘shift’ down automatically. When you want to come to a complete stop, hit the brake pedal and shift to (P).

Reverse (R) and Parking (P): When you need to reverse, bring the car to a complete stop, shift into Reverse (R). When parking, bring the car to a stop, shift into Park (P), engage the parking brake, and turn off the engine.

When to Use Neutral in an Automatic Car?

Neutral implies that no gear is engaged or ‘disengaged’ from the transmission. So when exactly would you need to use it in an automatic car? Here are some scenarios:

Starting the Engine: Before starting the engine, it’s advisable to have the gear selector in the Park (P) mode. However, if you are having trouble starting the engine while in Park, you can temporarily shift to Neutral (N). Once the engine is running, you can shift back to Drive (D) or Reverse (R) to begin driving.

Car Wash or Maintenance: You can avoid inadvertently moving the car when shifting to Neutral (N) when performing maintenance tasks or taking your car through an automatic car wash (when you need the engine to still be running).

Can I Drive An Automatic Car with a Manual Licence?

If you have a manual driving licence, you can drive an automatic vehicle in the UK. If you’ve decided to operate an automatic vehicle you can do without any additional tests or requirements.

On the other hand, if you have passed the driving test with an automatic vehicle you cannot drive a manual transmission-enabled car. You will need to apply for a manual driving licence.

Are All Electric Cars Automatic?

Essentially, yes, electric cars are automatic. In contrast to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, electric vehicles typically use one-speed transmission systems. The electric motor delivers power directly to the wheels, resulting in a continuous acceleration experience which eliminates the need for a manual transmission or the option to switch between different gears. In some cars, such as a Tesla, if you lift off the accelerator and hit the brake, it activates regenerative braking which puts energy back into the battery as well.

Marketing at ClickMechanic

Louanne is a marketing and communications professional in the automotive tech industry currently at ClickMechanic, boasting over 5 years of experience.

Louanne’s work at ClickMechanic might revolve around branding and customer engagement, but her passions extend far beyond the marketing sphere. A true foodie at heart, she loves exploring diverse cuisines and talking about her culinary adventures across the world. Her writing prowess shines through in her car-related blog content, where she offers invaluable driving tips and practical car repair advice.

In her Suzuki Jimny 4-wheel drive, Louanne combines her sense of adventure with her automotive know-how, transforming every drive into a lesson and a pleasure.