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Are all electric cars automatic?

February 16, 2023 by

Those unfamiliar with EVs are likely to have many questions, one of which may be whether all electric cars are automatic. Well, read on to find out.

If you’ve come here looking for a simple answer to the question of whether all EVs are automatic, the answer is yes, yes they are.

As with every subject in life though, when you look beyond the top-tier information there is more detail beneath, much of which will be useful for EV drivers, or those with curious minds.

Here we will guide you through various aspects of electric cars and their transmissions, and how they differ from petrol and diesel cars with automatic and manual gearboxes.

Many car makers have moved away from traditional stick shifters for their EVs

Do electric cars have gears?

While it is true to say that all electric cars are automatic, they don’t have gearboxes in the conventional sense.

A petrol or diesel car’s automatic gearbox comprises a series of forward gear ratios (typically between five and 10) that are automatically chosen by the car to optimise transmitting engine power to the driven wheels. In a car with a manual gearbox, the (typically five or six) forward gears are selected by the driver via the gear lever.

An electric car, on the other hand, will have either one or two electric motors, and the amount of electricity sent to those (determined by how much you push the accelerator pedal) determines how fast the electric motor turns, and how fast the car travels.

An EV’s motor spins too fast to drive the car’s wheels directly, so the rotational force developed by the motor is sent to a reduction gear before being sent to the driven wheels. The reduction gear can reduce rotational force so, for example, 15 revolutions of the motor equals one rotation of the car’s wheel. The reduction gear is a single-speed unit rather than being a variety of gears, as required by petrol or diesel cars.

A couple of high-performance electric cars – the Porsche Taycan and Audi RS e-tron GT – have a two-speed reduction gearbox in order to optimise battery and motor efficiency at high speed, but these are the exceptions to the rule that all EVs have single-speed gearboxes.

The Porsche Taycan’s gear selector sprouts from its dashboard near the steering wheel

Because there is no mechanical gearbox, there is also no need for a mechanical gear selector, giving car makers free reign to relegate the conventional gear stick to the history books, and fitting all manner of different controls for forward and reverse gears to electric cars, including rotary dials, push-button controls, toggle switches and twist selectors (though petrol/diesel cars with automatic gearboxes can also feature such innovations).

As a result, EVs are often able to make the most of their cabin space, perhaps replacing the spot where a gear lever would once have been with a large console storage area, with the gear selector being placed on the steering column, perhaps.

What are the benefits of an automatic electric car?

  • An EV’s transmission operates similarly to a conventional automatic gearbox so will be familiar to owners – put it in ‘D’ to go forward’ ‘R’ to go back, and ‘P’ to park
  • Less mechanical complexity than a conventional manual or automatic gearbox, so less to go wrong – no clutches to change, no transmission fluid to renew
  • Relaxing and smooth to drive; no gear changes to disrupt the supply of power to the wheels, so seamless acceleration, and no need to change gear yourself

Why do electric cars only have one gear?

This comes down to the way electric motors work: the more electricity that is passed through an electric motor, the faster the motor turns, and the quicker the car will go.

Petrol and diesel engines works in a different way, having a much lower maximum turning speed (revolutions/revs), and needing a series of gears to optimise engine speed with road speed.

Could electric cars be manual?

Yes, in theory – though a manual gearbox would be a non-essential confection designed to appeal to keen drivers, perhaps, as there is no need for one.

Formula E electric racing cars have made use of gearboxes in the past, either to reduce the speed of the motor down while maximising power, or to optimise how the motor’s power is deployed to the wheels – something that is more important in the ultra-competitive world of motorsport.

Lexus has also developed an electric car with a manual ‘gearbox’, complete with clutch pedal and gear lever, though both the gearbox and clutch are entirely electronic, and control how the motor’s power is delivered and how the car sounds – these are entirely synthetic and designed to increase driver engagement, rather than being in any way necessary.

How do you drive an electric car?

As discussed above, if you’ve driven a petrol or diesel car with an automatic gearbox, you already know how to use an EV’s transmission – stick it in ‘Drive’ and go.

You should take a moment to familiarise yourself with regenerative braking, though: this is what happens when you lift your foot off the accelerator in an EV. As the car slows, the reduction in the car’s speed is converted into electricity rather than being wasted, and this electricity charges the batteries slightly, improving range.

EV motors can act as generators when braking, adding small amounts of charge back to the batteries

Regenerative braking comes in a variety of strengths though: light regen will feel similar to coasting in a petrol or diesel car when you lift your foot off the accelerator. Heavy regen braking will feel more like you’ve actually depressed the brake pedal, even though you haven’t. The heavier the regen braking, the more electricity will be sent back to the car’s batteries.

Regen braking can seem unfamiliar at first, but drivers tend to acclimatise to it quite quickly, to the extent that for many EV drivers, the brake pedal is used far less than it would be normally.

It is possible to adjust the strength of the regen braking in most electric cars. If your EV offers this, different cars have different methods for doing this. Some models have an option in the infotainment screen, some have two paddles on either side of the steering wheel, some vary regen depending on driving mode (EG ‘comfort’ and ‘sport’), and some have a gearbox with a ‘B’ mode ( the B standing for braking).

It’s not just transmissions that are forward-thinking when it comes to EVs – the Hyundai Ioniq 5 has won plaudits for its futuristic design

What about the driving test?

UK road laws stipulate that if you take your driving test in a manual car you can drive automatics or manuals, but if you take your test in an automatic car, you can only ever drive an automatic car – unless you retake your test in a manual.

Because all electric cars are automatic, anybody taking their driving test in an EV will not be able to drive a manual, so as EVs become more popular, future generations may find themselves unable to drive manual cars. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which sets driving-test criteria, has previously said it is looking into this scenario in order to take into account changes in car technologies.

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