While fewer and fewer consumers are buying cars with manual transmissions these days (especially in the United States), many vehicles still give their drivers the ability to shift their own gears. How is this possible on an automatic transmission? By using paddle shifters attached the back of the steering wheel or mounted to the steering column itself.
Here's a look at what paddle shifters are and how to use paddle shifters.
How do paddle shifters work?
Paddle shifters let drivers electrically shift their vehicle's automatic transmission. Rather than the traditional clutch pedal and gear-shift lever on a manual transmission, drivers with an automatic transmission simply pull on the paddle itself to manually change gears.
On most vehicles, the right paddle will upshift (shift to a higher gear when you're speeding up) while the paddle on the left will downshift (shift to a lower gear when you're slowing down).
Vehicles with paddle shifters are fully automatic -- they'll shift on their own if you leave the paddles alone.
Types of transmissions with paddle shifters
Today's automatic transmissions are usually divided into three types: a conventional automatic, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and a dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
CVT and conventional automatic transmissions use a torque converter, a component that uses fluid in the gearbox to manage gear changes.
A dual-clutch design -- often found on performance vehicles or high-end cars -- use a pair of internal clutches that engage and disengage. One set of clutches controls the odd gears (1, 3, 5, 7) and the other even gears (2, 4, 6 and sometimes 8).
These DCTs offer nearly instantaneous gear changes because they use computers to determine the gear you're going to need next and has it ready to engage the moment the engine speed reaches the right RPM. It's this complication and performance abilities that impact the types of vehicles they're in.
Paddle shifters can be used to control any of these transmissions, although the difference is more pronounced with a dual-clutch setup.
Origins of Paddle Shifters
Paddle shifters, also known as flappy paddles, were first developed as the controls for semi-automatic gearboxes in Ferrari Formula One race cars during the late 1980s.
The placement of paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel or on the steering column meant drivers no longer had to take their hands off the wheels to manually shift using a gear lever. This made it easier for drivers to maintain control at extremely high racing speeds or in demanding situations that required both hands on the wheel.
Eventually this style of shifting found its way in high-performance supercars in the late 1990s. From there paddle shifters migrated to more and more mainstream vehicles. Today they're found on everything from minivans to small compact hatchbacks to luxury full-size SUVs.
Why Would Someone Buy a Car with Paddle Shifters?
Fun, performance, and control are the primary motivations for using paddle shifters. While automatic transmissions are remarkably responsive, many people still like to have the ability to manually shift if they need to.
Shifting gears manually can also be a safety advantage, particularly in bad weather on a slippery descent; shifting to a lower gear can use the engine speed to slow down the car rather than using the brakes, which could cause the car to skid.
Using Paddle Shifters
Paddle shifters are typically used for going incrementally up or down by one gear at a time, and they are often marked with a plus and minus sign. The paddle on the left side of the steering wheel shifts the transmission down a gear, while the one on the right shifts it up a gear. In this manner, paddle-shifting simulates a clutchless manual transmission.
For the most part, paddle shifters are ready to be engaged anytime the transmission is set to Drive. When you upshift or downshift by tapping or pulling the levers, your transmission holds the chosen gear for a few seconds and then reverts back to automatic. To cancel this override, just maintain pressure on one of the paddles for a little longer.
Many transmissions that have paddle shifters also have a Manual mode. By putting your gear selector into Manual, the vehicle's computers then wait to shift the transmission until you pull the appropriate paddle.
If you have your car in Manual mode and forget to shift, most vehicles' fail-safe mechanisms will eventually upshift even if you haven't pulled on the paddle.
Ditto for downshifting: if you pull the downshift lever when the engine is revving too high to safely execute a downshift, the computer will override your request.
If you are shopping for new vehicles and you've never used paddle shifters before, ask at the dealership show you the proper way to use them.
Advantages of Paddle Shifters
Ordinarily, with an automatic transmission, your vehicle's computer shifts gears as driving conditions dictate. Once you’ve put the car in Drive, you don’t need to touch the gear shift again until you’re ready to park or back up. Basically, with an automatic transmission, you’re letting the vehicle’s computer take control. However, if you’re not satisfied to just let the transmission do its job, paddle shifters give drivers the option of using the paddles for more manual control.
When you need to rapidly slow down and tightly turn a corner, using the left paddle to lower your transmission down by a gear or two as you turn provides extra torque to maneuver quickly.
When you're headed downhill in bad weather or when you're towing something, using the left paddle to downshift can help your engine to control the load’s weight better. This prevents excess wear-and-tear on your brakes, which can otherwise rapidly overheat, and skidding. You might think that downshifting would damage the transmission, but it’s designed to be used this way: The computer won’t allow the vehicle to redline.
Snow: Some paddle shifters let you start off in second gear instead of first; reducing the amount of torque that is sent to your vehicle’s drive wheels. This helps to prevent wheel spin in order to achieve and maintain good traction in the snow.