Automatic Transmission Tips

The law restricts people who have passed in an automatic car to driving that type only.

Types Of Fully Automatic Transmission

Models differ, so someone who understands the small details of the type you are using must help you. Most makes have two foot pedals only, and a selector in place of the normal gear lever.

The typical selector has Park, Reverse, Neutral and normal Drive positions. In addition, there may be one or more “Lockup” gear positions, for the driver to be able to hold gears manually at times. For safety, the engine will only start in the Neutral or Park positions. This prevents the car lurching forward or back at the instant you turn the starter switch.

Driving The Car

Most of the time the Drive position is used.

You only use your RIGHT foot. You must train the left one to keep to itself!

The gears, of which there are usually only three, automatically change from 1st to 2nd, and then from 2nd to top, governed by the accelerator position, related to the workload. (The gearbox will change down, for example, for extra power going uphill.)

When you slow down, the gears change back down by themselves.

Down changes on demand, for extra acceleration, are available in Drive, via “kick down”. This means pressing the accelerator pedal fully down and holding it to the floor. The gearbox changes down as far as necessary for maximum acceleration from whatever speed you were doing. It will not change down at all if you are already going faster than the pre-set maximum in the next gear down. Each gear is then held to its maximum speed before automatically changing up to the next, unless you relax the accelerator. As soon as you do that, it reverts to its normal Drive mode and, depending upon speed, this usually means it changes up directly into top at once.

The “Lock-up” provision lets you hold the transmission in low gear: e.g. Lock 1, or Lock 2. Lock 1 will hold it in 1st; in Lock 2 the gearbox will still make automatic changes but only up as far as the 2 level. If there is only one “Lock-up” position it usually equates to this Lock 2. Depending on speed, “kick-down” will usually work in Lock 2, but only within the limits of the two gears.

“Lock-up” prevents undesired upward gear changes which, in Drive, would otherwise occur. This is important for avoiding an upsetting upward change during overtaking, or on icy uphills, and it should be used appropriately. “Lock-up“ is essential for the engine resistance control required when descending a steep hill.

Normally, do not select a “Lock-up” to slow you down. From above the pre-set speed maxima, it will not engage 'til speed falls below the setting anyway. However, if your brakes fail, you must. Then, as speed drops whilst you do all else you can, “Lock-up” will help from the first possible moment.


In Park, the transmission is in neutral. The vehicle is, in addition, via the gearbox, mechanically locked against movement. You should use this position whenever you park, so that Park, as well as the handbrake, holds the car; this is vital if parked on a hill. The engine may be started, and idled or run for tuning in Park, but it should never be selected while the car is moving, which would damage the transmission.


The out of gear position, in which you can also start the engine.

Moving Away From Rest On The Level Or Downhill

I describe this routine from the stage of having the engine running in Park or Neutral, with the handbrake still on.

First press your right foot on the footbrake to make certain the car is held securely. Then select Drive, keeping that footbrake on all the while; now release the handbrake. Still holding the car on the footbrake, check for safety. Then, when safe, and having given your signal if appropriate, you simply transfer your foot to the accelerator, so as to move off and pick up speed as required. As speed increases, Drive looks after the gear changes.

You must introduce the footbrake because, even at tick-over engine speed, the transmission begins to try to move the car once you are in Drive. Otherwise, if the tick-over setting is a touch high (or raised as it will be while the choke is operating), and/or the handbrake is a bit weak, Drive can force the car forward the instant it is engaged - before you are ready.

Slowing And Stopping

Stop the car with the footbrake. To slow the car, merely use the footbrake as required. Use “Lock-up” to add engine braking whenever going down a steep hill.

The normal thing is to leave the transmission in Drive during short stops in traffic. Other than for a steep uphill stop, when you may need the handbrake as well, you hold the car on the footbrake. But the handbrake should be applied, and the gear selector returned to neutral as well, for any stops of long duration. Then you can safely remove your foot from the footbrake, and your brake lights will not stay on excessively, wearing out both their bulbs and the eyes of the driver behind - especially during rain and/or darkness. Just before you are clear to go, you get back on the footbrake, return to Drive and release the handbrake, ready to move off in the usual way.

When you reach the front line at junctions, traffic lights, roundabouts, etc., and are having to stop, then to follow that with the handbrake and returning to neutral, is again the safest technique if you have to wait long. This is because if your foot were to slip off the brake (or worse, onto the accelerator whilst you were not thinking) you will not then find yourself shot forward by mistake. This same reason makes using the handbrake and going into neutral the right policy to adopt at all pedestrian crossings, and at any stop where people are walking immediately in front of you; for example, when you are waiting in a queue and jay-walkers stray across between you and the vehicle you are stopped behind.

Maneuvering And Reverse

People may try to persuade you to use your left foot on the brake during reversing and slow maneuvers. It is unnecessary because slow-speed back and forward control is available with the accelerator alone (stopping with the footbrake as required). So stay with the RIGHT FOOT ONLY as I advocate. As a byproduct, you prevent yourself ever braking and accelerating at the same time, which could be a disaster in emergency. Left foot braking - which can lead to that happening all too easily - is a dangerous, unnecessary practice, and maneuvering is where many drivers pick up the bad habit.

Starting Uphill

Follow the same order described for “Moving Away From Rest” above. Unless the place is really quite steep, this will be fine. When it is very steep, simply leave the handbrake release until a little acceleration has been applied, and you feel the car straining a bit, rarin' to go. Then release it, and go, giving more acceleration as you do it, if you need to.

Stalling Danger

Danger can swiftly swamp you if the engine stalls (perhaps through being cold) as you are emerging from a road junction. Fast traffic coming will not be expecting you to sit in its way.

If this happens, move the selector to Neutral fast. The engine will not start in gear. Then back to Drive (or Reverse) to get you clear. You must practice so that this becomes a second-nature, instant, operation, otherwise you will one day find yourself in trouble.

Getting Stuck On Slippery Surfaces

“Rocking” is usually possible. Alternate selection of Drive and Reverse gears helps extract the car from being stuck in mud, snow or sand. With the engine idling to avoid damage to the transmission (don't press the accelerator), you switch from Drive to Reverse and back, with the merest split-second's delay in between. Within a couple of switches back and forth, with luck, the car will climb out one way or t'other.

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