Are electric cars automatic? At first glance, it might seem like a simple yes, but the full answer requires a look at the engineering behind electric cars.
This article examines the transmission of electric cars, in order to understand how they are considered automatic and not manual, how they work, and what sets them apart from the transmission of traditional petrol cars.
How does car transmission work?
The concept of car transmission works in a similar way to the gears of a bicycle. Just as a cyclist shifts gears to handle steep inclines or gain speed on a flat stretch, cars require a system to ensure the engine works efficiently across varying speeds and terrains.
In essence, a car’s transmission is responsible for converting the engine’s power into movement, optimising the balance between speed and torque.
Traditionally, there are two primary types of transmissions in petrol or diesel-powered vehicles: manual and automatic.
- Manual Transmission
Manual transmission requires the driver to manually select and engage the gears using a clutch pedal and gear stick. It offers the driver more control, often resulting in better fuel efficiency if used expertly. However, it also demands more skill and attention not to stall!
- Automatic Transmission
Automatic transmission doesn’t need manual gear changes because it automatically selects the right gear based on the vehicle’s speed and the engine’s RPM (revolutions per minute). Automatic transmissions are user-friendly, especially for urban driving, and are popular in many parts of the world due to their ease of use.
Are electric cars manual or automatic transmission?
The way EVs work is very different to ICE vehicles, and understanding this difference is key to answering the question are EVs manual or automatic?
The vast majority of electric cars on the market today are, in essence, automatic. They typically have a single-speed transmission system, which means there’s no need for the driver to shift gears as they accelerate or decelerate.
However, calling electric cars “automatic” can be a bit of an oversimplification. While it’s true that the driver doesn’t have to shift gears, the mechanics differ from the normal automatic transmission systems that we used in our old cars.
Why are electric cars automatic?
There are a number of reasons electric cars are automatic:
- Nature of Electric Motors
Electric motors deliver a consistent torque across a wide range of speeds. Unlike internal combustion engines, which have a torque curve and require multiple gears to stay in the correct power band, electric motors can produce maximum torque from a standstill, so it doesn’t need multiple gears.
- Efficiency & Simplicity
Introducing a multi-gear transmission system adds complexity, weight, and potential points of failure. By using a single-speed gearbox, electric cars can maintain a simpler, lighter, and more efficient drivetrain, which will perform better than a manual transmission.
- Driver Experience
One of the attractions of electric vehicles, especially for urban drivers, is the smoothness of the driving experience. Without gear shifts, acceleration is seamless, making for a more comfortable and less jarring ride. This kind of driving experience aligns well with the “automatic” feel that many modern drivers prefer.
- Regenerative Braking
EVs use regenerative braking systems, which capture and convert some of the energy usually lost during braking back into stored energy in the battery. This system works most efficiently with the single-speed transmission systems that EVs have.
Can electric cars be manual?
In theory yes, an electric car could be designed with a manual transmission. Engineers could theoretically pair an electric motor with a multi-gear system that requires the driver to shift gears.
However, would it really be practical to do so?
Implementing a manual gearbox could mess with the regenerative braking system, and, more importantly, Electric motors are capable of delivering high acceleration right from a standstill. This means it doesn’t need multiple gears to generate speed. So if you wanted to fit electric cars with gears it would only be as a nod to driving nostalgia rather than a functional necessity.
There are still plenty of car enthusiasts in the UK who treasure the experience of changing gears and the connection it offers between driver and machine. For this niche market, a manual electric car might be appealing. However, even in the world of old-school ICE cars, the trend has been “shifting” (pardon the pun) towards automatic transmissions.
Are all electric hybrid cars automatic?
Hybrid vehicles combine an internal combustion engine (ICE) with an electric motor, tend to use automatic transmission systems. Mainly due to the following reasons:
Complex Power Management
Hybrids need to manage and switch between two power sources – the engine and the electric motor. An automatic transmission can seamlessly manage this balance.
Similar to pure electric vehicles, many hybrids feature regenerative braking.
Not all hybrid vehicles are automatic though, some earlier hybrid models were offered with manual transmission options. But these have been relatively rare, and the trend has firmly been towards automatic systems as the technology has evolved.
Do electric cars have a transmission?
The term “transmission” in the car world makes you think of multi-gear systems found in traditional cars. When it comes to electric vehicles (EVs), the concept of transmission differs significantly. Yes, electric cars do have what can be termed as a “transmission,” but it’s not the same as the multi-gear setups we’re familiar with in our old cars. Most electric vehicles utilise a single-speed transmission or reduction gear.
How does an electric car transmission work?
Electric car transmissions differ from standard car gearboxes, They use a simpler, single-speed transmission that works like this:
The transmission in an electric car serves as a mediator between the electric motor and the wheels. It ensures that power from the motor is transferred to the wheels, allowing the vehicle to move.
While we often refer to EV transmissions as “single-speed,” it’s not a direct connection between the motor and the wheels. The transmission needs a reduction gear.
Electric motors can spin at very high speeds, much higher than what wheels need for typical road speeds. The reduction gear reduces the motor’s RPMs to a suitable level for the wheels. Just as with conventional cars, EVs also have a differential as part of their drivetrain.
The differential takes the torque from the electric motor and divides it between the two drive wheels, allowing them to rotate at different speeds when necessary, such as during turns.
How does the automatic transmission work when you tow an EV?
A point to consider, especially for potential EV owners used to traditional vehicles, is how the EV transmission works if you need to tow an electric car. EVs, given their automatic drivetrains, often require specialised towing techniques.
The single-speed “automatic” transmission found in EVs means there aren’t multiple gears to manage during a tow. However, the main concern is ensuring that the drivetrain isn’t damaged during the tow. This is crucial for vehicles that have motors directly connected to the wheels.
Because of this, when towing an EV, it’s often recommended to lift all four wheels off the ground. This ensures that there’s no risk of damage to the motor or transmission. The best electric car breakdown providers are now able to tow EVs by lifting them entirely off the ground.
If you do not have EV breakdown cover you need to call a flatbed recovery truck that can lift an EV entirely off the road, ensuring it’s transported safely without causing any harm to its automatic transmission systems.
Are there any electric cars with a gearbox?
Not many EVs have a gearbox, most EVs use a single-speed transmission but there are a few exceptions of electric cars that have multi-speed gearboxes:
Porsche’s all-electric Taycan uses a two-speed transmission on its rear axle. The first gear provides greater acceleration from a standstill, while the second gear, which is longer, offers high efficiency and equally high power reserves at high speeds.
This hypercar uses a two-speed gearbox for its rear motors. The setup is designed to maximize the performance potential of the car, offering blistering acceleration in first gear and a high top speed in second.
While the Regera is a hybrid, not a purely electric vehicle, it’s noteworthy for its innovative approach to transmission. It uses a direct drive system without traditional gears but employs a hydraulic coupling that can slip, providing the effects of a variable transmission.
Do electric cars have reverse gear?
Electric cars can obviously reverse but they do not have a “reverse gear”. In an electric car, the concept of reversing is elegantly straightforward. Instead of switching to a separate reverse gear, the car simply changes the direction of the electric motor’s rotation which makes the car move backwards.
This process means you don’t need a dedicated reverse mechanism in the transmission and transitioning from forward motion to reverse in an EV is very smooth.
The final word on electric car transmissions
It’s really interesting to see how old-school concepts like gear systems, are being transformed by the evolution of electric cars. Electric Car transmissions are so simple and efficient. By eliminating the need for complex multi-gear systems and introducing intuitive and easy-to-use controls, EVs offer drivers a more direct and responsive experience on the road.
The majority of electric cars can be considered “automatic” as they have single-speed transmissions, eliminating the need for manual gears.
Electric motors have consistent power across a wide speed range, which means multiple gears are unnecessary. However, a few exceptions with multi-speed gearboxes do exist, primarily in performance-oriented EV models.
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John is the Editor and Spokesperson for Electric Car Guide.
With over 20 years of writing experience, he has written for titles such as City AM, FE News and NerdWallet.com, covering various automotive and personal finance topics.
John’s market commentary has been covered by the likes of The Express, The Independent, Yahoo Finance and The Evening Standard.