Transmission Components

The modern automatic transmission consists of many components and systems that are designed to work together in a symphony of clever mechanical, hydraulic and electrical technology that has evolved over the years into what many mechanically inclined individuals consider to be an art form.  We try to use simple, generic explanations where possible to describe these systems but, due to the complexity of some of these components, you may have to use some mental gymnastics to visualize their operation.

The main components that make up an automatic transmission include:

  • Planetary Gear Sets that are the mechanical systems that provide the various forward gear ratios as well as reverse.
  • The Hydraulic System that uses a special transmission fluid sent under pressure by an Oil Pump through the Valve Body to control the Clutches and the Bands in order to control the planetary gear sets.
  • Seals and Gaskets are used to keep the oil where it is supposed to be and prevent it from leaking out.
  • The Torque Converter that acts like a clutch to allow the vehicle to come to a stop in gear while the engine is still running.
  • The Governor and the Modulator or Throttle Cable that monitor speed and throttle position in order to determine when to shift.
  • On newer vehicles, the Computer that directs electrical solenoids to shift oil flow to the appropriate component at the right instant controls shift points.

Planetary Gear Sets

Automatic transmissions contain many gears in various combinations.  In a manual transmission, gears slide along shafts as you move the shift lever from one position to another, engaging various sized gears as required in order to provide the correct gear ratio. In an automatic transmission, however, the gears are never physically moved and are always engaged to the same gears.  This is accomplished through the use of planetary gear sets.

The basic planetary gear set consists of a sun gear, a ring gear and two or more planet gears, all remaining in constant mesh.  The planet gears are connected to each other through a common carrier, which allows the gears to spin on shafts called “pinions” which are attached to the carrier.

One example of a way that this system can be used is by connecting the ring gear to the input shaft coming from the engine, connecting the planet carrier to the output shaft, and locking the sun gear so that it can’t move.  In this scenario, when we turn the ring gear, the planets will “walk” along the sun gear (which is held stationary) causing the planet carrier to turn the output shaft in the same direction as the input shaft but at a slower speed causing gear reduction (similar to a car in first gear).

If we unlock the sun gear and lock any two elements together, this will cause all three elements to turn at the same speed so that the output shaft will turn at the same rate of speed as the input shaft. This is like a car that is in third or high gear. Another way that we can use a Planetary gear set is by locking the planet carrier from moving, then applying power to the ring gear which will cause the sun gear to turn in the opposite direction giving us reverse gear.

The illustration on the right shows how the simple system described above would look in an actual transmission. The input shaft is connected to the ring gear (Blue); The Output shaft is connected to the planet carrier (Green), which is also connected to a “Multi-disk” clutch pack. The sun gear is connected to a drum (yellow), which is also connected to the other half of the clutch pack.  Surrounding the outside of the drum is a band (red) that can be tightened around the drum when required to prevent the drum with the attached sun gear from turning.


The clutch pack is used, in this instance, to lock the planet carrier with the sun gear forcing both to turn at the same speed. If both the clutch pack and the band were released, the system would be in neutral.  Turning the input shaft would turn the planet gears against the sun gear, but since nothing is holding the sun gear, it will just spin free and have no effect on the output shaft. To place the unit in first gear, the band is applied to hold the sun gear from moving.  To shift from first to high gear, the band is released and the clutch is applied causing the output shaft to turn at the same speed as the input shaft.

Many more combinations are possible using two or more planetary sets connected in various ways to provide the different forward speeds and reverse that are found in modern automatic transmissions.

Some of the clever gear arrangements found in four and now, five, six and even seven and eight-speed automatics are complex enough to make a technically astute lay person’s head spin trying to understand the flow of power through the transmission as it shifts from first gear through top gear while the vehicle accelerates to highway speed.  On modern vehicles (mid ’80s to the present), the vehicle’s computer monitors and controls these shifts so that they are almost imperceptible.



What is a Transmission?

The transmission is a device that is connected to the back of the engine and sends the power from the engine to the drive wheels. An automobile engine runs at its best at a certain RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) range and it is the transmission’s job to make sure that the power is delivered to the wheels while keeping the engine within that range. It does this through various gear combinations. In first gear, the engine turns much faster in relation to the drive wheels, while in high gear the engine is loafing even though the car may be going in excess of 70 MPH. In addition to the various forward gears, a transmission also has a neutral position which disconnects the engine from the drive wheels, and reverse, which causes the drive wheels to turn in the opposite direction allowing you to back up. Finally, there is the Park position. In this position, a latch mechanism (not unlike a deadbolt lock on a door) is inserted into a slot in the output shaft to lock the drive wheels and keep them from turning, thereby preventing the vehicle from rolling.


There are two basic types of automatic transmissions based on whether the vehicle is rear wheel drive or front wheel drive.


On a rear wheel drive car, Power flow on a rear wheel drive automobile the transmission is usually mounted to the back of the engine and is located under the hump in the center of the floorboard alongside the gas pedal position. A drive shaft connects the rear of the transmission to the final drive which is located in the rear axle and is used to send power to the rear wheels. Power flow on this system is simple and straight forward going from the engine, through the torque converter, then through the transmission and drive shaft until it reaches the final drive where it is split and sent to the two rear wheels.



On a front wheel drive car, Power flow on a front wheel drive automobile the transmission is usually combined with the final drive to form what is called a transaxle. The engine on a front wheel drive car is usually mounted sideways in the car with the transaxle tucked under it on the side of the engine facing the rear of the car. Front axles are connected directly to the transaxle and provide power to the front wheels. In this example, power flows from the engine, through the torque converter to a large chain that sends the power through a 180 degree turn to the transmission that is along side the engine. From there, the power is routed through the transmission to the final drive where it is split and sent to the two front wheels through the drive axles.


There are a number of other arrangements including front drive vehicles where the engine is mounted front to back instead of sideways and there are other systems that drive all four wheels but the two systems described here are by far the most popular. A much less popular rear drive arrangement has the transmission mounted directly to the final drive at the rear and is connected by a drive shaft to the torque converter which is still mounted on the engine. This system is found on the new Corvette and is used in order to balance the weight evenly between the front and rear wheels for improved performance and handling. Another rear drive system mounts everything, the engine, transmission and final drive in the rear. This rear engine arrangement is popular on the Porsche.

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