How Automatic Transmissions Work

Automatic Transmissions: Hydraulics, Pumps and the Governor


The automatic transmission in your car has to do numerous tasks. You may not realize how many different ways it operates. For instance, here are some of the features of an automatic transmission:

  • If the car is in overdrive (on a four-speed transmission), the transmission will automatically select the gear based on vehicle speed and throttle pedal position.
  • If you accelerate gently, shifts will occur at lower speeds than if you accelerate at full throttle.
  • If you floor the gas pedal, the transmission will downshift to the next lower gear.
  • If you move the shift selector to a lower gear, the transmission will downshift unless the car is going too fast for that gear. If the car is going too fast, it will wait until the car slows down and then downshift.
  • If you put the transmission in second gear, it will never downshift or upshift out of second, even from a complete stop, unless you move the shift lever.

You've probably seen something that looks like this before. It is really the brain of the automatic transmission, managing all of these functions and more. The passageways you can see route fluid to all the different components in the transmission. Passageways molded into the metal are an efficient way to route fluid; without them, many hoses would be needed to connect the various parts of the transmission. First, we'll discuss the key components of the hydraulic system; then we'll see how they work together.

The "brain" of the transmission The "brain" of the transmission
The "brain" of the transmission
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The Pump

­Automatic transmissions have a neat pump, called a gear pump. The pump is usually located in the cover of the transmission. It draws fluid from a sump in the bottom of the transmission and feeds it to the hydraulic system. It also feeds the transmission cooler and the torque converter.

Gear pump from an automatic transmission Gear pump from an automatic transmission
Gear pump from an automatic transmission
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The inner gear of the pump hooks up to the housing of the torque converter, so it spins at the same speed as the engine. The outer gear is turned by the inner gear, and as the gears rotate, fluid is drawn up from the sump on one side of the crescent and forced out into the hydraulic system on the other side.

The Governor

The governor is a clever valve that tells the transmission how fast the car is going. It is connected to the output, so the faster the car moves, the faster the governor spins. Inside the governor is a spring-loaded valve that opens in proportion to how fast the governor is spinning -- the faster the governor spins, the more the valve opens. Fluid from the pump is fed to the governor through the output shaft.

The faster the car goes, the more the governor valve opens and the higher the pressure of the fluid it lets through.

The governor The governor
The governor
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