How to Shift an Automatic Transmission

by Elizabeth Sobiski
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Modern leather interior of the new car image by terex from

An automatic transmission is an electronically controlled device that facilitates forward and reverse movement for a passenger car or truck. On a typical passenger car or small truck, depending on the make and model, up to four forward gears may be available, as well as a reverse gear, a neutral gear and a park setting. The gear currently engaged on the vehicle is indicated on the gearshift indicator, which is typically marked with P R N D L3 L2 L1. The idea behind the automatic transmission was to make driving easier by eliminating the manual clutch and gearshift.


Step 1

Engage the brake pedal, pressing it down firmly. Many newer cars will not allow gears to be shifted without first stepping on the brake. It is not necessary for the engine to be running to shift gears, but the engine does need to be running to accommodate forward or reverse movement.

Step 2

Shift the car into "Reverse" to move the car backwards. Look at the gearshift indicator and verify that the "R" is selected. Some cars require the driver to press and hold a button while moving the shift lever. The button, if there is one, will be on the gearshift itself. With the car in reverse, it can be driven backwards. There is only one reverse gear, unlike forward drive, which offers several gear choices.

Step 3

Shift the car into "Neutral" and the "N" on the gearshift indicator will be selected. If the car engine stalls, shifting into neutral will allow the driver to restart the car. When the transmission is in neutral, even without the engine running, the car can roll freely and the steering will not be locked. If the car needs to be pushed for any reason, it should be placed in this gear first.

Step 4

Shift the car into "Drive" and the "D" on the gearshift indicator will be highlighted. This is the gear of choice for regular forward driving. Within this gear selection, a number of gears may come into play, dictated by the speed of the car. This is where the "automatic" feature of the transmission really shines. Depending on the make and model of the vehicle being driven, there may be anywhere from three to six forward gears; however, the driver doesn’t have to be concerned with choosing these gears -- the transmission does it automatically.

Step 5

Place the car into "Low 3" gear and the corresponding letter on the gearshift indicator will be selected. This gear is used for engine breaking when driving down a steep hill and for extra muscle when climbing an incline. Engine breaking means that the transmission slows the speed of the car. Engine breaking for an extended time should be avoided, as it can seriously damage the engine.

Step 6

Shift the car into "Low 2" gear, if the car is equipped with this gear. Like the previous low gear, this gear assists with breaking on steep declines and climbing steep inclines. It is also helpful with starting forward movement from a stop on roads made slippery by rain, snow or mud.

Step 7

Shift the car into "Low 1" gear. This gear works the same as the other low gear settings except that it lowers the engine speed the most. This gear provides the most muscle, or torque, to the wheels possible with the current engine.

Step 8

Place the car into "Park" when you've stopped the car and intend to exit the vehicle. Also, use this gear when you start the car. The transmission locks when in this gear, which means it cannot freely move.

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