Feb 262019

If you’ve ever driven an automatic car and wondered how the engine works the gears for you, or why it doesn’t stall the moment you take your foot off the accelerator, we are here to enlighten you.

Unlike a manual car, an automatic transmission doesn’t have a clutch pedal, which means no gear shift either. Once you move the ‘gear’ box or paddle into drive mode, all you have to do is control the speed and the brakes, everything else is managed for you – hence the automatic moniker.

So if an automatic car provides the same overall output as a manual car, what is the difference between them?

Actually, quite a lot.

In fact, the way an automatic transmission works is in direct contrast to how a manual transmission works – but with the exact same end result – your car moving.

Let’s start at the beginning with the fundamentals of what makes an automatic transmission work, and go from there.

What is a transmission

Automatic transmission. Image credit: Art of Manliness.

The transmission is essential to driving your car, without it, you would be confined to a solitary gear ratio. Putting that into perspective: if you wanted to drive the car at say, 70mph, the corresponding solitary gear would probably be third gear in a manual car.

Now, if you’ve ever tried to accelerate from stationary in third gear, you’ll appreciate the delicacy of the situation; and if you’ve ever driven a car in third gear at 70mph, you’ll know it screams in protest.

The transmission therefore is the power switchboard of the car. It includes gears, which allow you to take maximum advantage of the engine’s torque, so you can go from zero to hero, seamlessly.

To do that with a manual transmission, you lock and unlock the various gears to the output shaft by pressing your foot on the clutch and moving the gears into the required place, to utilise all the gear ratios.

In an automatic transmission, this process is done for you, through a device known as the planetary gear set.

The secret to automatic transmission: the planetary gear set

Planetary gear set. Image credit: Instructables.

About the size of a small melon, the planetary gear set – a little piece of engineering ingenuity – is responsible for creating all of the different gear ratios required to get you smoothly out of the start gates and up to full speed. Everything else in an automatic transmission is merely there to facilitate the planetary gear set to do its thing.

There are three parts to the planetary gear set (so named because of these components):

  1. The sun gear
  2. The planet gears
  3. The ring gear

Each of these gears can be the input, the output or remain in stationary; deciding which combination they go in, determines the gear ratio for the gear set.

Image credit: How Stuff Works 2018

The different inputs are decided upon by connecting and disconnecting a series of clutches and steel brake bands inside the automatic transmission. The brake bands themselves are controlled by a hydraulic system, and whether the clutch engages or not is driven automatically by a combination of mechanical, hydraulic and electrical magic*.

*OK, not necessarily magic, but it’s easier to watch this video than read a wall of text on the subject.

Gear ratio decision for an automatic transmission

The gear ratio for an automatic transmission is therefore determined by which segments of the planetary gear system are moving or not. And the movement of the various segments is decided upon, depending on which clutch or band is engaged.

And that, dear readers, is a brief overview of how an automatic transmission works.

Having gone through all that, allow me to blow your mind with a quick fact: engineers developed the above wizardry in 1932 – before computers were invented.

Feb 202019

What Car 2019 logo

The What Car? Car of the Year Awards, in association with Warranty Direct, is one of the biggest events in the UK motoring calendar. Hosted at Grosvenor House, this was the 42nd time the annual awards ceremony took place in central London on January 22nd, 2019.

What Car? is the UK’s key car-buying brand and has been helping Britain’s car buyers make purchasing decisions for over 40 years. Only the cars setting the standards for their respective class are nominated for each category.

Prior to the awards, 61 new models were in contention for the top award of the evening; the What Car? Car of the Year. The Kia e-Niro was crowned the winner of this, which was a massive achievement as not only was it the first time Kia took home the main accolade, but it was also the first time an electric car has won the What Car? Car of the Year Award.

The event was particularly exciting this year as What Car? also introduced three new awards categories: Best plug-in hybrid, Sports SUV and Pick-up. Of course, traditional categories still achieved much recognition and included winners for; Best small car, Family SUV, Convertible and Estate car, to name but a few.

In addition to being the headline sponsor, Warranty Direct also sponsored the individual Hot hatch award category, revealing the best new hot hatch currently on the market.

When considering the short list for what makes a great hot hatch, the judges had strict criteria, considering a number of key features including:

  • Ease of use – most of these vehicles are based on existing family hatchbacks, so should be practical enough to use every day
  • A keen list price with low running costs
  • The low prices could not entail poorly finished cabins or mean skimping on vehicle equipment lists
  • Performance and driving fun

Contenders for the Warranty Direct sponsored Hot hatch award were the Ford Fiesta ST, Honda Civic Type R and the Hyundai i30 N. The overall winner of this category was announced as the Honda Civic Type R 2.0 VTEC Turbo GT.

Simon Ackers, CEO at Warranty Direct commented on the awards:

 “It is a privilege Warranty Direct once again returned as headline sponsors, especially as the What Car? Car of the Year Awards is one of the most highly anticipated events in the motoring calendar. 

“The What Car? Awards recognise the fantastic achievements of individual car manufacturers and produce expert advice, essential for consumers considering their next motoring purchase.

“We are proud to have supported this year’s results and are extremely happy Honda won our sponsored category against some stiff competition!”

One thing’s for sure, we are incredibly proud to reprise the title sponsorship of the What Car? Car of the Year Awards for the seventh year running.

Not only do the awards provide great insight into what motorists can expect to see leading the way in 2019 but they also demonstrate the industry’s ability to revive and improve their products every year.

Warranty Direct’s Reliability Index also provides motorists with a ‘real world’ picture of car ownership, for those considering next vehicle purchase. The index collates and analyses 50,000 live Warranty Direct policies to rate vehicles in order of reliability.

As well as finding out the overall reliability of a car, it offers information on which parts fail most often such as air conditioning, axle & suspension, braking, cooling, electrical components and engines.

Feb 042019

Autonomous VehiclesWhile fully self-driving vehicles aren’t quite part of today’s reality just yet, many new cars feature assisted and partial automation already.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders predicts the technology being developed for connected and autonomous vehicles will have prevented 25,000 accidents by 2030.

Warranty Direct looks at some of the key self-driving technologies making today’s vehicles safer and more efficient.

Ultrasonic sensors

 Most drivers will be familiar with ultrasonic sensors, with many vehicles already adopting the technology to help with reversing into tight parking spaces and more.

Ultrasonic sensors send out sound waves to detect surrounding objects. When the waves hit an object, it gives the car an accurate measurement of how close they are, to avoid collisions.

Blind-spot information system

Blind spot monitoring technology uses radar systems or rear-facing digital cameras, to sense vehicles which appear in a car’s blind spot. If this happens, a warning light shows in either the door mirror or within the A-pillar to alert the driver and make them aware of a potential hazard.

It’s become particularly useful when a motorist wishes to change lanes, as the technology offers an audible or haptic message if there is another vehicle in a car’s blind spot.

While it should reduce the number of collisions caused from changing lanes, drivers still need to check their blind spots and mirrors regularly and not become dependent on this technology alone.

IoT connectivity

Utilising IoT connectivity gives vehicles the ability to access wider data, like real-time traffic and weather updates, to ensure the safest and smoothest drive possible.

Connecting to a world of internet devices poses its problems, though. Privacy and safety are the biggest issue, with automated cars open to hacking, and the threat of information theft from connected devices like mobile phones.

Lane-keeping alert and automatic steering assist

By using a forward-looking camera, this technology has been developed to recognise when drivers are drifting out of a lane. Most vehicles will give either a visual or audible warning, but some higher-end motors now have automatic systems to divert a car safely back into the correct lane.

At the moment the technology is most effective on dry motorways and in a smooth flow of traffic, but there are developments being made to make it more precise and better suited to other situations such as driving on rural roads.

Traffic sign recognition

This uses a camera to scan road signs, then communicates this information back to either the dashboard or infotainment section of a vehicle.

All drivers should be well-versed on the Highway Code, which provides information on all the relevant road signs. However, this technology has been designed more as “extra driving assistance”, to help people when on unfamiliar roads or if they may have missed a change in the speed limit.

What’s next…?

Automation is measured in five stages; with the final, most advanced stage being a fully autonomous system. This is when a vehicle’s performance is equal to that of a human driver.

The majority of vehicles are currently at stage two, which is what the systems listed earlier like park assist and lane-keeping alert are currently rated.

But what are some of the technologies the motoring industry has in the pipeline to take us to stage five?


Mercedes-Benz is currently working on a new technology – car-to-x – which will allow drivers to see ‘into the future’ – past multiple bends and maybe even further.

The sophisticated technology establishes networked links among and between vehicles and traffic infrastructure, so you can adjust your driving behaviour and defuse potentially dangerous situations.

The new GPS

Fully self-driving cars will rely on GPS devices to locate their position, helping to establish a route, know when to turn and more.

The worry is GPS devices can sometimes be off by a few metres, which would be extremely dangerous for a travelling vehicle. However, by connecting to other built-in sensors and cameras, vehicles can pinpoint an exact location.