Are All Electric Cars Automatic And Do They Have Gears?

Rowan Harris 5 minutes Published: 20/10/2021

If you learnt to drive using a manual car, driving an electric car might feel rather strange. Not only is there no gear stick, but you can comfortably drive around town using just one pedal.

So, how do electric cars work? In this article we take a more in-depth look at the pros and cons of an EV drivetrain.

Are all electric cars automatic?

Because EVs don’t have the same power band limitations as ICEs, they generally don’t need more than one gear. This also means that the likelihood of us seeing a manual gear shifter on an EV is pretty remote!

But manufacturers know that H-shifters are part of what makes driving fun. It’s for this reason that they have attempted to install manual gearboxes in EVs in the past. The original prototype for the Tesla Roadster had a two-speed manual gearbox, though it was eventually ditched for a single-speed transmission. 

Ford also created an all-electric Mustang prototype with a six-speed manual gearbox for the Speciality Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in 2019, but this is unlikely to ever hit the road. 

In fact, some manufacturers think automatic cars don’t go far enough. The Tesla Model S Plaid introduces another innovation in automatic cars. While most automatics and electric cars come with some form of shift lever to choose between ‘drive’, ‘park’, and ‘reverse’, the Tesla Model S Plaid will make this decision for you.

While it’s not totally clear how this would work, it’s likely to be based on what the car sees in front of or behind it at the time. It might sound scary, but Tesla has proved itself time and again to be adept at artificial intelligence and autonomous driving solutions. If the Tesla gets it wrong, it can always be overridden with a tap of the touchscreen. 

Can you drive an electric car on an automatic license?

It’s a good question. Whether you have an automatic or a manual license, you will be able to drive an EV.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t take some getting used to. Few who step into an EV for the first time are prepared for the instantaneous acceleration, or the rapidity with which regenerative braking slows the vehicle down after you lift your foot off the accelerator.

Some driving instructors are even switching to EVs now to save on running costs! It’s worth remembering, if you pass your test in an EV, you will only be able to drive automatic cars afterwards.

Do electric cars have gears?

Almost every production EV has a single-speed transmission. In other words, there is no need to cycle through gears to reach top speed. 

Why is this the case? First of all, electric motors have a much higher rev range. An electric motor can typically rev up to 20,000 rpm. An ICE will usually go up to about 6,000-7,000 rpm. 

Secondly, an internal combustion engine has a much narrower power band than an electric motor. This is the range of operating speeds under which the engine or motor is able to operate efficiently. The power band is around the peak power output. In an ICE, it starts at midrange engine speeds where maximum torque is produced and ends close to the red line. 

In electric motors, maximum torque is produced instantly from zero rpm, and a single-speed transmission is often sufficient for them to attain top speed.

EVs that use a single-speed transmission must select a single gear ratio. This usually demands a trade off: top speed or acceleration. Because electric motors can rev so high, this usually isn’t an issue.

Is there any benefit to having gears in an electric car? 

The Porsche Taycan was the first production EV to have a two-speed transmission. Formula E cars have been experimenting with different gear set-ups for several years. Audi’s Lucas Di Grassi, the most successful driver on the Formula E grid, drives a three-speed e-Tron FE07.

A multi-speed transmission in an EV provides the same benefits you’d expect in an ICE car. You can maximise acceleration whilst increasing efficiency at high speeds by allowing the motor to spin at a lower speed in a higher gear. This isn’t necessary, but could help improve range for motorway driving.

Automotive industry supplier ZF is working on its own version of a two-speed transmission which it believes could lead to a 5% improvement in electric range. In larger EVs, this could add 15 to 20 miles.

So, why aren’t multi-speed transmissions more common? Because electric motors generate a massive amount of torque at the tap of a pedal, they need to be seriously robust. A two-speed EV transmission would require significantly more maintenance, which would undercut one of the EV’s main selling points: cheaper upkeep compared to internal combustion engines. 

Tesla has produced a potential solution to this in their dual motor, four wheel drive versions of the Tesla Model S, Tesla Model 3 and Tesla Model X. Each has a different gear ratio in the front and rear drive unit. At lower speeds, more power is directed to the rear wheel drive unit, which is optimised for acceleration and driving at lower speeds. 

As you reach higher speeds, more power is directed to the front drive unit, which is more efficient at driving at higher speeds or on the motorway. This is part of the reason why Tesla is able to achieve higher top speeds, quicker acceleration, and longer battery ranges than any of its competitors. 

Is there a downside to having a single-speed electric car?

Because EVs have such a wide power band compared to ICEs they generally don’t need a multi-speed transmission as they can accelerate and reach a reasonable, road-worthy top-speed all with one gear ratio. 

However, the range of your electric car may take a hit when travelling for long distances on the motorway, or at higher speeds. 

If you class yourself as a bit of a petrol head, you’ll also miss that distinctive roaring sound of the engine as it revs through the gears.

But don’t think that EV manufacturers don’t know that! A team of sound engineers at Audi has been hard at work crafting the definitive soundtrack to electric car driving. Get ready for hyperdrive...

Conclusion

Electric cars are leading the way - whether that’s with lower emissions, quicker acceleration or the ultimate ease of use and accessibility. 

Is the fact that most EVs are single-speed an issue? We don’t think so. It not only makes them cheaper, but it also means that less can go wrong in the long term. 

Nevertheless, as extended range and improved charge point coverage make EVs the vehicle of choice for longer journeys in the future, we expect more manufacturers to adopt at least two gear ratios like Tesla and Porsche for more efficient high speed driving.

For more information on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of EVs, check out our posts on regenerative braking and EV charger types.  Or, see how they compare to other fuel types in our hybrid vs electric and electric cars vs petrol cars posts.