I am trying to understand if or why electrical and hybrid cars always have automatic transmissions.

I know that a conventional petrol/diesel engine only have a small effective torque range, so you need a transmission to increase that range. Is that correct?

While electrical engines have max torque available from the very start, not needing the transmission.

However hybrids I don't understand. What are the reason for only having automatic transmissions? Or actually, are there anything magic to hybrids to make both the power from the electrical engine and normal engine work together? I know VW use DSG transmissions for their Golf GTE which is a hybrid.

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    Welcome to Motor Vehicle Maintenance & Repair! Would it surprise you to know there's a Honda Civic Hybrid with a manual transmission? – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Jan 29 '18 at 20:04
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    And DSG is just a marketing name for a very bad DCT. – user33798 Jan 29 '18 at 21:54
  • Most electric motors can operate at any speed, but efficiency does vary a lot over the rev range. Tesla, for instance, chooses not to have a transmission, presumably for costs. But both efficiency, top speed, and acceleration would be far batter with one. There are electric motorcycles that even use a manual gearbox and clutch. – Bart Jan 30 '18 at 21:26

In many cases, a hybrid system uses a planetary set with multiple power inputs (IC engine and [electric] motor). The power sources work individually on say the ring and the planetary carrier, while the sun gear is used for power take-off to the wheels. (I might have the arrangement assigned wrong, but the principle is basically the same. It's a beautiful ménage à trois accomplished with brilliant angineering.) There's the "magic" you spoke of.

This arrangement allows for a multitude of strategies, including all IC, all electric, IC engine starting, regenerative brakes, and various combinations of recharging and motive power. The so-called "Hybrid Synergy Drive" is largely a Toyota effort, but is also licensed to Nissan and I beleive was co-developed with Volvo. Ford and their associated buddies use an Atkinson-cycle engine with variable strokes. This engine is highly efficient in a very narrow RPM range, and has a very narrow torque band. BOTH of these systems use a form of transmission that could roughly be called "CVT", with a nearly infinite number of gear ratios to optimise efficiency.

For one of the reasons you mentioned (broad torque range of [electric] motors) a manual transmission in this system is not only not needed, but would probably be in constant conflict with the various power/regeneration distribution models - which are delicate formulas constantly changing and adjusting for efficiency. Something only a computer can do well instantly, continuously, and with an inherent understanding of of the horsefeathers and unicorn blood that makes these things work. You might be able to make an educated guess on gear selection and execute a choice, but probably not a thousand times a second.

(Whilst there should be no need to put [electric] in front of "motor", I do so for clarity... and the admission I'm one of "those" people...)

On a vehicle with drive [electric] motors at the wheels (e.g. Tesla) there probably is no need for any selectable gearing at all. On a "hybrid drive" scenario with both IC and a single [electric] motor as power sources, the computer must control this operation and torque splitting. It is doubtful that a 5,6,7 speed manual system (perhaps with a clutch?) would work in the ideal efficient fashion these vehicles are intended to perform.

Contrast the "performance" aspect of a niche vehicle like a Tesla, vs. the "eco" effciency of a vehicle like the Prius. Neither (in particular) offer a true "manual" transmission, and I would suggest that neither needs or would benefit from one. High performance "sport" vehicles (including Tesla, to some extent) usually cannot feature a highly efficient CVT transmissions, as these transmissions tend to be limited in torque handling capability. Perhaps in years to come.

And as a final divergence from a different perspective, only gearhead weirdos such as meself refuse to trust juice boxes. Largey due to my age and thickheadantry, but my point remains. Who would buy it? You can't even sell a modern V8 muscle car with sufficent market penetration in a "stick only" scenario. Those days are long gone. [sniff] You might see 10-20% stick sales on a very top-end Corvette, Camaro, or Challenger SRT. So, besides the practical engineering/efficiency aspects, I doubt any serious hybrid/electric OEM would even consider a manual transmission vehicle with such a poor ROI given the development costs. Build it and they will NOT come.

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  • Good answer, also think about racing cars moving to "auto" transmissions - when they were manual the time for a gar change meant that the wheels were not getting power - even a 1 second gear change with 2000 gear changes a race meant 2000 seconds of no power - these CVT etc avoid this ... – Solar Mike Jan 30 '18 at 9:33
  • @SolarMike They aren't "manual" for many years. Modern [F1 anyway] transmissions are fixed: 8 forward and 1 reverse gear, per the rules. Shifting is "manual", but electrohydraulic actuation. Shifts are never with any loss of power, as there are two separate barrel units that allow the gear change to take place while the alternate system is still under power. However, these are helical spur gears, no torque converter, and no planetary sets. I don't think we will see a CVT in a high-performance race car for many years, if ever. Current designs just can't handle the ludicrous torque and RPM. – SteveRacer Jan 31 '18 at 2:58
  • The point was the “old” manual transmissions - I used “were” to point out the loss of power during gear changes... – Solar Mike Jan 31 '18 at 7:16
  • @SolarMike Absolutely. Agreed. (My '72 BWM 2002tii FPROD has Can-Am history with the same 45 year-old 4 speed). I just don't think CVT is in the near future for high torque applications. – SteveRacer Feb 1 '18 at 4:17
  • Toyota refer to HSD as "e-CVT" transmission, presumably to differentiate it from the old (lossy and unreliable - at least in perception) cone-and-belt CVT. But they present a user interface that's supposed to be familiar to users of conventional automatics. I'd not driven an automatic before I got my first Prius, but it seemed pretty intuitive. – Toby Speight Jun 1 '18 at 10:36

Note on the question itself...

Not all hybrids have automatic transmission. The first generation Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Honda CR-Z were available with manual transmissions. For an interesting video tour of a Gen 1 Insight see: This Honda Gets 61 Miles Per Gallon.

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I am trying to understand if or why electrical and hybrid cars always have automatic transmissions.

As an answer pointed out, this is not always true. However, let me tell you more about the Toyota hybrids.

In Toyota hybrids, the hybrid system IS the transmission. The hybrid system is a clever way of implementing an electric continuously variable transmission. There is only one planetary gearset in the gearbox.

The planetary gearset (the power split device) has three shafts:

  • Shaft 1: internal combustion engine (ICE)
  • Shaft 2: motor-generator 1 (MG1)
  • Shaft 3: motor-generator 2 (MG2) + wheels

There is a relationship between the rotation of these shafts. Essentially you can think of it as a differential with funny gear ratios.

The MG2 provides its torque directly to wheels. By adjusting the (forwards or backwards) rotation speed of MG1, you are adjusting the difference of rotation speeds of internal combustion engine and wheels.

In Toyota hybrids, there is also a small battery providing limited current to act as a buffer that smooths the power demand for ICE and at the same time allows very limited short runs on electricity only, cycling the engine at a higher efficiency operating point rather than continuously running the engine at a low power production point.

The battery provides only about 30-40 hp depending on the car model. The MG1 and MG2 are far more powerful than that. So, mostly, the cleverness of the hybrid system is in an electrically operated continuously variable transmission. The battery is just a small extra adding a bit more energy efficiency.

Because in Toyota hybrids, the hybrid system is the transmission, you will never see a Toyota hybrid with a manual transmission (unless Toyota changes the principles of their hybrid cars, which is unlikely).

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