Electronically Controlled Transmissions

In manual mode you can shift gears without a clutch pedal.
©iStockphoto/Emre Ogan
An automatic transmission with a manual mode allows the driver to shift gears without a clutch pedal.

Electronically controlled transmissions, which appear on some newer cars, still use hydraulics to actuate the clutches and bands, but each hydraulic circuit is controlled by an electric solenoid. This simplifies the plumbing on the transmission and allows for more advanced control schemes.

In the last section we saw some of the control strategies that mechanically controlled transmissions use. Electronically controlled transmissions have even more elaborate control schemes. In addition to monitoring vehicle speed and throttle position, the transmission controller can monitor the engine speed, if the brake pedal is being pressed, and even the anti-lock braking system.

Using this information and an advanced control strategy based on fuzzy logic -- a method of programming control systems using human-type reasoning -- electronically controlled transmissions can do things like:

  • Downshift automatically when going downhill to control speed and reduce wear on the brakes
  • Upshift when braking on a slippery surface to reduce the braking torque applied by the engine
  • Inhibit the upshift when going into a turn on a winding road

Let's talk about that last feature -- inhibiting the upshift when going into a turn on a winding road. Let's say you're driving on an uphill, winding mountain road. When you are driving on the straight sections of the road, the transmission shifts into second gear to give you enough acceleration and hill-climbing power. When you come to a curve you slow down, taking your foot off the gas pedal and possibly applying the brake. Most transmissions will upshift to third gear, or even overdrive, when you take your foot off the gas. Then when you accelerate out of the curve, they will downshift again. But if you were driving a manual transmission car, you would probably leave the car in the same gear the whole time. Some automatic transmissions with advanced control systems can detect this situation after you have gone around a couple of the curves, and "learn" not to upshift again.

For more information on automatic transmissions and related topics, check out the links on the next page.