5 Signs a Vehicle Isn't Shifting Properly: A Guide for Auto Mechanic School Students

Close-up male hand switching a gearbox
If a vehicle isn’t shifting correctly, this could be an indication of trouble with the transmission. The transmission converts the speed of a vehicle’s engine into torque, or rotational force, through the gear and clutch components. The transmission ensures that a vehicle’s wheels receive the right amount of power to drive at a specific speed. Within vehicles, transmissions may be manual or automatic. In manual vehicles, drivers use a clutch pedal to control the performance of their car, while automatic transmissions intuitively change the gears as a driver presses on the gas pedal. 
If a driver is experiencing a shifting problem, it’s likely that their vehicle’s transmission requires immediate attention. If you’re entering a career in the automotive industry, here are the signs that a vehicle isn’t’ shifting properly.

1. Those in Auto Mechanic School Should Look Out for Gear Slippage

Gear slippage happens when a vehicle’s gears change without action from the driver, and can be extremely dangerous. In vehicles equipped with a manual transmission, drivers have complete control over the change of gears, while in an automatic vehicle, drivers can select neutral, drive, or reverse. If a vehicle’s gears are slipping without being changed by the driver, this could indicate that a transmission’s fluids are low, or that the transmission’s bands are worn. A vehicle experiencing gear slippage should not be driven, and should receive attention from professionals with car mechanics training immediately. 

Drivers of automatic transmission vehicles may be experiencing gear slippage
Drivers of automatic transmission vehicles may be experiencing gear slippage

2. A Burning Smell Can Be a Sign of a Transmission Problem

Transmissions operate with the aid of transmission fluid, which ensures that the transmission is well lubricated for optimal performance. In automatic transmission vehicles, transmission fluid also acts as a coolant to reduce the high operating temperatures created by the shifting of gears. If a driver notices a burning smell while operating their vehicle, this could be a sign that the transmission fluid is running low or is degraded. When the transmission lacks the proper amount of fluid, the temperature of the engine rises excessively, resulting in corrosion and wear, and affecting the smooth shifting of gears.

A burning smell can be a signal that a vehicle isn’t shifting properly
A burning smell can be a signal that a vehicle isn’t shifting properly

3. Strange Sounds Signal Trouble

Strange noises are one of the most notorious signs associated with a malfunctioning vehicle transmission. If a vehicle is making grinding, humming, or winding sounds, this can indicate that a vehicle’s transmission is having trouble shifting gears. This could be due to a lack of friction in the transmission mechanism, caused by low fluid levels or worn out gears. If you’re in training for mechanics, this problem can be addressed by checking the transmission for signs of wear.

4. A Delay in Engagement Indicates a Shifting Problem

Delayed engagement is a possible symptom of a shifting problem that can appear in both manual and automatic vehicles. If a driver puts their car in gear and experiences a delay before the vehicle actually moves forward, then this is a sign that the vehicle is not shifting properly. Delayed engagement may be caused from the wearing of the transmission’s internal seals or a clogged transmission filter, both of which require attention from professional mechanics.

5. Refusal to Go Into Gear Is a Tell-Tale Sign

One of the most obvious signs of a shifting issue is a vehicle’s inability to go into gear. If a driver tries to put their vehicle in gear and the vehicle refuses to cooperate, this means that the transmission needs some attention. Auto mechanics should check the transmission’s fluid levels to ensure that there is nothing preventing the transmission from operating smoothly. If the fluid is clean and filled, the issue may lie in the shift cables or the clutch linkage. In the case of an automatic transmission, the vehicle’s computer system could be at the root of this particular type of shifting malfunction. In this case, the vehicle’s battery can be disconnected temporarily in order for the computer to reboot.
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