Driving an automatic vehicle

Vehicles with automatic and semi-automatic transmission have always been a great help to drivers with physical disabilities, because there’s less work for the feet and hands to do.

They’re also a popular choice with other drivers, not least because of the easier control and convenience they offer, particularly in congested urban conditions.

Vehicles with automatic transmission have no clutch pedal. The transmission senses and selects the best gear for the road speed and load on the engine. This not only makes the physical job of driving much easier but also allows you more time to concentrate on the road ahead.

Automatic transmission usually changes to a higher gear as the road speed increases and to a lower gear as it falls. It will also change down to a lower gear going uphill as the load on the engine increases.

There are times – for example, when going down a steep hill – when you need to stay in a low gear, even if the engine load is light. The transmission often tries to change to a higher gear in these situations. However, the driver is usually able to override the transmission by using the gear selector to stay in a suitable lower gear.

Driving a vehicle with automatic transmission

Make sure you fully understand the procedure required before you attempt to drive a vehicle with automatic transmission.

Although most automatics have a cut-out switch to prevent you from starting the engine while the vehicle is in gear, always check that the selector is in the ‘P’ (Park) or ‘N’ (Neutral) position and the parking brake is fully applied before switching on the ignition.

For normal forward driving, move the selector lever to the ‘D’ (Drive) position. The transmission will then change gear automatically.

Alternatively, you can select one of the numbered gears. This gives you similar flexibility to a manual gearbox.

Controlled use of the accelerator is essential when driving an automatic, as it has such a direct effect when the selector is in any position other than ‘P’ or ‘N’.

Avoid heavy acceleration; it can

  • cause the vehicle to surge forward (or backwards) out of control
  • delay upward gear changes
  • waste fuel and increase exhaust emissions.

There's much more detail on this and other topics in The Official DVSA Guide to Driving – the essential skills, covering many items around driving an automatic vehicle, including

  • accelerator use
  • gear selection
  • use of kickdown
  • parking
  • understanding creep
  • paddle hand controls, where fitted.

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