An Automatic Can Be a Stick

Back in the old days we used to have manual transmissions with a manual gear selector and a clutch pedal. We also had automatic transmissions that had a single selector used to shift the transmission to the mode of operation needed at any given time. Every car was either an automatic or a stick.

Regular 4 speed automatic.
Today it seems whatever manual transmissions are actually left, are not really any different from the old ones, but the automatic transmissions are very different. We don’t have the old PRND2L up on top of the steering column anymore. We now have all sorts of other things to choose from when operating the automatic transmission. As time goes by things always have to get more complicated.

Most of these features in newer automatic transmissions center on being able to select the gear you want in some fancy new way. Despite the fact that all automatic transmissions actually let the driver select the gear they want, the newer automatics now make something special out of it.

Paddle shifters are the two little levers with the plus and minus signs
used for shifting up and down.
Paddle shifters on the steering wheel or column are now common along with other things that allow the driver to very easily go from a fully automatic mode to a somewhat manual mode. Most cars that have one of these features will usually have a selection within the shift gate that allows them to use the gear selector kind of like a switch. The driver can push the gear selector forward to shift up or pull the selector backward to shift down. These transmission setups use names such as autostick, tiptronic, or manumatic. A few automatic transmissions with manual mode are a completely different thing called a dual clutch transmission (DCT), but this is a topic for another time.

The only difference between and autostick transmission and a regular old automatic is the programming. Automatic transmissions are completely computer controlled on all cars and trucks today. This means that the driver selects the mode such as drive or reverse, and the computer selects everything else such as what gear to use and how and when to shift. Vehicles equipped with an autostick transmission have a mode where the driver is allowed to select the gears manually, but the transmission control computer still does the actual shifting. So the job of gear selection moves from the computer to the driver when the transmission is in the manual mode. Neither the computer nor the driver ever has to worry about a clutch because all of the inner workings of the drivetrain are the same no matter which mode is selected.

In reality this is not that different from the old automatics from years ago. Many people probably remember how grandpa used to drive his old Ford truck with the three speed automatic. With any automatic, including old ones, it is possible to start out driving with the lever on the steering column or on the floor in the L or 1 position. This will not let the transmission shift out of 1st. Once the vehicle gets moving the driver would then move the selector up to the 2 position and the transmission would shift into 2nd. Then as the vehicle got moving even faster the driver would move the selector to the D position and the vehicle would shift into 3rd.

Manual mode is selected by moving the lever to drive then moving to
the right
How is this any different than what the fancy autostick transmissions allow today? The answer is, not much. This manual shifting of an automatic transmission even works when shifting back down from high gears to low gears. The thing is there is no good reason to drive an automatic vehicle this way. The notion that automatics don’t let the driver select the gear they want to use is not exactly true; you just can’t select it as precisely as you can with a regular manual transmission.

Even the autostick transmission will only allow the driver to do so much. If you try to over rev the engine by just letting wind up and not shifting into a higher gear, it will go ahead and do it for you whether you want it to or not. If you come to a stop and you don’t down shift back to first, it will do it for you.

So what is the advantage to this kind of automatic transmission that has become so common? They are slightly more convenient to use, and they give a feeling of more control even if they don’t actually offer more control. With just the right vehicle they can add a little bit of excitement to the driving experience. For some people little things like this matter but chances are most people don’t really care.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

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