Peer into a planetary automatic transmission, and you'll see a complex world of gears, brakes, clutches and governing devices. By comparison, a continuously variable transmission is a study in simplicity. Most CVTs only have three basic components:
- A high-power metal or rubber belt
- A variable-input "driving" pulley
- An output "driven" pulley
CVTs also have various microprocessors and sensors, but the three components described above are the key elements that enable the technology to work.
The variable-diameter pulleys are the heart of a CVT. Each pulley is made of two 20-degree cones facing each other. A belt rides in the groove between the two cones. V-belts are preferred if the belt is made of rubber. V-belts get their name from the fact that the belts bear a V-shaped cross section, which increases the frictional grip of the belt.
When the two cones of the pulley are far apart (when the diameter increases), the belt rides lower in the groove, and the radius of the belt loop going around the pulley gets smaller. When the cones are close together (when the diameter decreases), the belt rides higher in the groove, and the radius of the belt loop going around the pulley gets larger. CVTs may use hydraulic pressure, centrifugal force or spring tension to create the force necessary to adjust the pulley halves.
Variable-diameter pulleys must always come in pairs. One of the pulleys, known as the drive pulley (or driving pulley), is connected to the crankshaft of the engine. The driving pulley is also called the input pulley because it's where the energy from the engine enters the transmission. The second pulley is called the driven pulley because the first pulley is turning it. As an output pulley, the driven pulley transfers energy to the driveshaft.
When one pulley increases its radius, the other decreases its radius to keep the belt tight. As the two pulleys change their radii relative to one another, they create an infinite number of gear ratios -- from low to high and everything in between. For example, when the pitch radius is small on the driving pulley and large on the driven pulley, then the rotational speed of the driven pulley decreases, resulting in a lower “gear.” When the pitch radius is large on the driving pulley and small on the driven pulley, then the rotational speed of the driven pulley increases, resulting in a higher “gear.” Thus, in theory, a CVT has an infinite number of "gears" that it can run through at any time, at any engine or vehicle speed.
The simplicity and stepless nature of CVTs make them an ideal transmission for a variety of machines and devices, not just cars. CVTs have been used for years in power tools and drill presses. They've also been used in a variety of vehicles, including tractors, snowmobiles and motor scooters. In all of these applications, the transmissions have relied on high-density rubber belts, which can slip and stretch, thereby reducing their efficiency.
The introduction of new materials makes CVTs even more reliable and efficient. One of the most important advances has been the design and development of metal belts to connect the pulleys. These flexible belts are composed of several (typically nine or 12) thin bands of steel that hold together high-strength, bow-tie-shaped pieces of metal.
Metal belts don't slip and are highly durable, enabling CVTs to handle more engine torque. They are also quieter than rubber-belt-driven CVTs.