How to drive an automatic car - learner driver cheat sheet

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Automatic cars in the UK
Gears
Driving test
How to start and stop
Gearbox types
Automatics vs manuals

Automatic cars in the UK

Automatic cars have become commonplace on the UK’s roads in recent years. Often cheaper to maintain and less fuel-hungry than manual vehicles, they’re also surprisingly relaxing to drive… once you get used to them.

But what is the difference between driving a manual and automatic car?

The most basic difference is that the former has a gear system that the driver operates using the clutch pedal and pushing the gear stick. In contrast, an automatic car changes gear automatically in relation to the vehicle speed. Consequently, there is no clutch pedal - just the left pedal for braking and the right for accelerating.

With automatic cars, you can say goodbye to gear-changing and stalling. Automatic cars control the gears for you. With four modes - park, reverse, drive, and neutral - you only need to decide if you want to move forward, backwards or stop; the car will do the rest.

This means that learning how to drive an automatic car is generally more straightforward. There are some things to be aware of though, as well as licencing restrictions. Here’s how it all works 👇

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How do the gears in an automatic car work?

Automatic cars have only four gears:

  • Drive (D) - this gear moves the car forward
  • Reverse (R) - use this gear for reversing, as you would in a manual car
  • Neutral (N) - as with manual cars, the neutral ‘gear’ puts the car into a neutral state. The car isn’t moving, and there are no brakes to keep it stationary
  • Park (P) - if you’re in a situation where you would use the handbrake, use the park gear

With the vehicle in drive, as you push the accelerator, the car moves forward, automatically selecting the correct gear for the speed and the load on the engine, such as going uphill or towing. Generally speaking, it switches up through the gears as you go faster, but unlike a manual car in which you use the gear stick to select the right gear, the car takes care of that for you.

Driving an automatic can be easier than driving a manual (still, don’t let Fenton take the wheel)/>

<figcaption align = Driving an automatic can be easier than driving a manual (still, don’t let Fenton take the wheel)
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Do you need to take a special driving test to drive an automatic car?

Most people in the UK learn to drive in a manual car, which means that when you pass your test, you’re qualified to drive both manual and automatic cars.

However, if you take your lessons and pass your test in an automatic car, you will only be permitted to drive automatics, limiting your options when considering buying your own vehicle. You’ll have to retake your test if you wish to have your licence upgraded to drive manual cars.

The practical driving test follows the same format (here’s a cheeky driving test cheat sheet!) for both automatic and manual cars, so at least you’ll know what to expect.

When it comes to learner driver insurance (clank! That’s the sound of us dropping that plug…), it’s important to note that if your supervisor, be they a professional instructor or a friend or family member, only holds an automatic licence, they cannot teach you in a manual car. Legally, they must be qualified to drive the type of vehicle you’re learning in.

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How to drive an automatic car - step-by-step guide

If you’re used to driving a manual car, switching to an automatic can take some getting used to. Once you’ve learned that you don’t have a gear stick and the vehicle takes care of clutch control, it becomes a lot easier.

How to start an automatic car

  1. Place your right foot on the left-hand pedal - then brake, and push down
  2. Start the car by turning the key in the ignition or clicking the start button
  3. Keeping your foot on the brake pedal, move the shift stick to ‘D’ if you want to go forwards or ‘R’ if you need to reverse
  4. Lifting your foot off the brake will cause the car to move forward slowly
  5. By pressing the right pedal - the accelerator - with your right foot, the car will gain speed
  6. As you press harder, the car will go faster, choosing the correct gear for the speed
  7. If you need to slow down for a bend, bring your foot off the accelerator to reduce speed and use the brake pedal to reach the desired speed. The automatic gears will adjust accordingly

How to stop an automatic car

  1. Depending on the road situation, either bring the accelerator up or press down on the brake pedal to reduce speed. The automatic gear will shift down accordingly
  2. Once the car has stopped moving, keep your foot on the brake and move the shift stick to ‘P’
  3. Apply the handbrake
  4. Turn off the ignition

What are the different types of automatic gearboxes available?

As the technology used in automatic cars advances, several types of gearboxes - or transmissions - have been developed, giving you a number of choices when picking an automatic car.

Automated manual gearbox

Mechanically automated manual gearboxes work in the same way as conventional gearboxes. The only difference is that the gears are managed through the use of electric motors. These control the clutch and change gear when necessary. Usually found in smaller cars, they are generally very fuel efficient.

Dual-clutch automatic gearbox

Designed to work like an automated manual gearbox, the dual-clutch transmission, or DCT, has two clutches. When most automatic car transmissions shift between gears, there is a very slight power lapse when accelerating. The DCT, however, eliminates this by priming one clutch ready for a gear change while the other is engaged with the current gear. This improves fuel efficiency and produces a smoother, faster drive.

Torque converter automatic gearbox

This is one of the most commonly seen automatic gearboxes. Typically having between six to 10 gears, they produce smooth shifts through the gears and generate good acceleration. They are often fitted to larger luxury cars due to their power; however, they aren’t the most fuel-efficient choice.

Continuously variable transmission automatic gearbox

Most vehicles use cogs for gears, but continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs, use a series of cones and belts. The belts slide up and down the cones, depending on the speed the vehicle is travelling, and are not limited to precise gears. CVTs produce a smooth, quiet drive by constantly keeping the engine running at peak efficiency.

Automatic cars can be cheaper to buy than manual cars
Automatic cars can be cheaper to buy than manual cars

Automatic cars vs manual cars

Both automatic and manual cars have their benefits and disadvantages.

Manual cars

Benefits:

  • Greater control over gears than automatic vehicles. This can be beneficial in wintery conditions
  • Often cheaper to buy than automatic cars
  • Less expensive to service and repair due to their less complex designs
  • Can produce faster acceleration speeds which are better for overtaking
  • Fuel efficient

Disadvantages:

  • Requires extensive input from the driver, which can result in clutch-leg ache. This can be a particular issue when driving in built-up areas where your clutch is constantly in use
  • Changing gear can be distracting, and taking a hand off the steering wheel to change gear increases the risk of accidents

Automatic cars

Benefits:

  • Automatic cars are generally easier to drive than manual vehicles. Simple to operate, with no clutch control necessary, they allow you to focus on the road conditions and other traffic
  • Generally, automatics produce a smoother drive, with no stuttering transitions between the gears
  • In built-up areas or rush hour traffic, automatics give a far better drive without the constant gear changing of a manual
  • The lack of wear on the gears allows automatic cars to retain their value for longer

Disadvantages:

  • Often automatic cars are more expensive to buy than manual vehicles
  • Some drivers consider them boring to drive. Changing gear offers more of a physical connection with the car, which, on longer journeys, can offer a welcome break from the monotony of motorways
  • Automatic cars can be more expensive to repair than manuals when problems develop
  • Insurance premiums can be higher than with manual vehicles due to the expense of repairing them

Whether you prefer to take your test in an automatic or manual car is a matter of personal choice - but what you can’t stay on the fence about is making sure you’re insured. Whether you want hourly insurance or rolling monthly cover, you can get a quick quote in minutes.

Updated on 6th October 2022