As someone who has only ever owned and driven manual cars, being introduced into the world of automatics for the first time was certainly eye-opening. If, like me, you thought that automatics were by and large the same, then prepare to be educated!
The first thing to note is that there are two very different types of automatic: 'geared' and 'continuously variable transmission' (CVT). Whilst the first system has a fixed amount of gears and, in certain modes, can be driven in a similar style to a manual (for example in 'sport' mode where the automatic system can be overridden), the CVT selects the appropriate gear once the speed has been reached. You can therefore expect a reasonable amount of engine noise during acceleration as the engine is held at the peak of its power. On the flip side however, they can be extremely responsive and smooth since they do not 'hunt' for the appropriate gear in slow moving traffic or during hill climbs and descents.
Secondly, although you may correctly identify the type of automatic as 'geared', this is only the start. It seems that every single manufacturer has a slightly different 'geared' system with various different modes, options and ratios. Familiarity with one does not mean familiarity with all. Here, the important thing to note is that if, as an Observer, you're unsure of anything (or even if you think you understand it but want to check that the Associate does) then ask the Associate for an explanation of how their particular system works. This is good practise anyway and may identify some things to watch out for during the subsequent drive.
Thirdly, depending on whether you're in a CVT or 'geared' automatic, and depending on what the owner's manual says, there may also be differences in what the Associate does when stopped for long periods of time. The typical sequence for a 'geared' automatic is 'Park', 'Reverse', 'Neutral' and 'Drive' which means, to get to Park you have to move through Reverse. When stationary therefore, some drivers will select 'Neutral' rather than 'Park' to avoid the albeit brief flash of reversing lights which may confuse/panic the driver behind. Owner's manuals may have recommendations here and it could be a useful question to ask the Associate what is suggested by the manufacturer (if only to check that they've read their manual!)
That said, regardless of whether you drive an automatic or manual transmission, the System of advanced driving still remains the same. Information still needs to be gathered and given, the correct road position adopted and the hazard approached at the correct speed (which is regulated with acceleration sense and braking). Whilst in a manual transmission the Observer would be looking at this point for an overlap between the brake pedal and gear change, in an automatic it is important to assess whether all of the braking has been completed before the hazard and a slight pressure re-applied to the accelerator so that the car selects the right gear. A typical 'fault' which automatic drivers can display is braking in the hazard or whilst steering around a corner.
Obviously the other aspects of advanced driving - limit points, driving plans and making progress - are all still relevant as well. The final, important, point to note is that by understanding what the capabilities of their automatic transmission are, when to use the manual override feature (if present) and how to ensure that the car is in the right gear at the right time, the Associate will not only become a better driver but they should also have a more enjoyable driving experience.
Neil Lakeland - Trainee Observer.
Follow this link if you missed any of Neil's blog's on observer training.