The modern automatic transmission consists of many components and systems that are designed to work together in a symphony.
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-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 as the vehicle accelerates to highway speed. On newer vehicles, the vehicle's computer monitors and controls these shifts so that they are almost imperceptible.
A clutch pack consists of alternating disks that fit inside a clutch drum. Half of the disks are steel and have splines that fit into groves on the inside of the drum. The other half have a friction material bonded to their surface and have splines on the inside edge that fit groves on the outer surface of the adjoining hub. There is a piston inside the drum that is activated by oil pressure at the appropriate time to squeeze the clutch pack together so that the two components become locked and turn as one.
A one-way clutch (also known as a "sprag" clutch) is a
device that will allow a component such as ring gear to turn
freely in one direction but not in the other. This effect is just
like that of a bicycle, where the pedals will turn the wheel when
pedaling forward, but will spin free when pedaling backward.
A common place where a one-way clutch is used is in first gear when the shifter is in the drive position. When you begin to accelerate from a stop, the transmission starts out in first gear. But have you ever noticed what happens if you release the gas while it is still in first gear? The vehicle continues to coast as if you were in neutral. Now, shift into Low gear instead of Drive. When you let go of the gas in this case, you will feel the engine slow you down just like a standard shift car. The reason for this is that in Drive, a one-way clutch is used whereas in Low, a clutch pack or a band is used
A band is a steel strap with friction material bonded to the inside surface. One end of the band is anchored against the transmission case while the other end is connected to a servo. At the appropriate time hydraulic oil is sent to the servo under pressure to tighten the band around the drum to stop it from turning.
On automatic transmissions, the torque converter takes the place of the clutch found on standard shift vehicles. It is there to allow the engine to continue running when the vehicle comes to a stop. The principle behind a torque converter is like taking a fan that is plugged into the wall and blowing air into another fan which is unplugged. If you grab the blade on the unplugged fan, you are able to hold it from turning but as soon as you let go, it will begin to speed up until it comes close to the speed of the powered fan. The difference with a torque converter is that instead of using air, it uses oil or transmission fluid, to be more precise. A torque converter is a large doughnut shaped device (10" to 15" in diameter) that is mounted between the engine and the transmission. It consists of three internal elements that work together to transmit power to the transmission. The three elements of the torque converter are the Pump, the Turbine, and the Stator. The pump is mounted directly to the converter housing which in turn is bolted directly to the engine's crankshaft and turns at engine speed. The turbine is inside the housing and is connected directly to the input shaft of the transmission providing power to move the vehicle. The stator is mounted to a one-way clutch so that it can spin freely in one direction but not in the other. Each of the three elements have fins mounted in them to precisely direct the flow of oil through the converter With the engine running, transmission fluid is pulled into the pump section and is pushed outward by centrifugal force until it reaches the turbine section which starts it turning. The fluid continues in a circular motion back towards the center of the turbine where it enters the stator. If the turbine is moving considerably slower than the pump, the fluid will make contact with the front of the stator fins which push the stator into the one way clutch and prevent it from turning. With the stator stopped, the fluid is directed by the stator fins to re-enter the pump at a "helping" angle providing a torque increase. As the speed of the turbine catches up with the pump, the fluid starts hitting the stator blades on the back-side causing the stator to turn in the same direction as the pump and turbine. As the speed increases, all three elements begin to turn at approximately the same speed. Since the '80s, in order to improve fuel economy, torque converters have been equipped with a lockup clutch (not shown) which locks the turbine to the pump as the vehicle speed reaches approximately 45 - 50 MPH. This lockup is controlled by computer and usually won't engage unless the transmission is in 3rd or 4th gear.
The Hydraulic system is a complex maze of passages and tubes that sends transmission fluid under pressure to all parts of the transmission and torque converter. The diagram at left is a simple one from a 3-speed automatic from the '60s. The newer systems are much more complex and are combined with computerized electrical components. Transmission fluid serves a number of purposes including: shift control, general lubrication and transmission cooling. Unlike the engine, which uses oil primarily for lubrication, every aspect of a transmission's functions are dependant on a constant supply of fluid under pressure. This is not unlike the human circulatory system (the fluid is even red) where even a few minutes of operation when there is a lack of pressure can be harmful or even fatal to the life of the transmission. In order to keep the transmission at normal operating temperature, a portion of the fluid is sent through one of two steel tubes to a special chamber that is submerged in anti-freeze in the radiator. Fluid passing through this chamber is cooled and then returned to the transmission through the other steel tube. A typical transmission has an average of ten quarts of fluid between the transmission, torque converter, and cooler tank. In fact, most of the components of a transmission are constantly submerged in fluid including the clutch packs and bands. The friction surfaces on these parts are designed to operate properly only when they are submerged in oil.
The transmission oil pump (not to be confused with the pump element inside the torque converter) is responsible for producing all the oil pressure that is required in the transmission. The oil pump is mounted to the front of the transmission case and is directly connected to a flange on the torque converter housing. Since the torque converter housing is directly connected to the engine crankshaft, the pump will produce pressure whenever the engine is running as long as there is a sufficient amount of transmission fluid available. The oil enters the pump through a filter that is located at the bottom of the transmission oil pan and travels up a pickup tube directly to the oil pump. The oil is then sent, under pressure to the pressure regulator, the valve body and the rest of the components, as required.
The valve body is the brain of the automatic transmission. It contains a maze of channels and passages that direct hydraulic fluid to the numerous valves which then activate the appropriate clutch pack or band servo to smoothly shift to the appropriate gear for each driving situation. Each of the many valves in the valve body has a specific purpose and is named for that function. For example the 2-3 shift valve activates the 2nd gear to 3rd gear up-shift or the 3-2 shift timing valve which determines when a downshift should occur. The most important valve, and one that you have direct control over is the manual valve. The manual valve is directly connected to the gear shift handle and covers and uncovers various passages depending on what position the gear shift is placed in. When you place the gear shift in Drive, for instance, the manual valve directs fluid to the clutch pack(s) that activates 1st gear. it also sets up to monitor vehicle speed and throttle position so that it can determine the optimal time and the force for the 1 - 2 shift. On computer controlled transmissions, you will also have electrical solenoids that are mounted in the valve body to direct fluid to the appropriate clutch packs or bands under computer control to more precisely control shift points.