Why Is a Torque Converter So Essential to Your Automatic Transmission?


Did you know that your car's transmission relies on a strange, fluid-filled donut? While you probably shouldn't think about eating your torque converter or what's inside of it, the typical modern example certainly does look like a donut. This unusual component plays a critical role in the operation of automatic transmissions, and it's also a common failure point.

Automatic transmissions are sophisticated enough to require several complete courses to explain their operation, but it's helpful to know a few details. Understanding your torque converter's function and the essentials of its operation can make it easier to recognize when yours may be failing.

Why Do Cars Need Torque Converters?

Your engine generates power through a controlled combustion process and transmits this energy into a rotating shaft. Of course, you want this energy to reach your wheels and drive your car forward, but what about when you need to stop? If you attached your engine directly to your wheels, the power from your motor would need to compete with the friction created by your brakes.

In this simplified example, the combination of your car's static inertia and the action of your brakes would overcome your engine's torque output, ultimately stalling the engine. Your vehicle needs a way to allow the engine to rotate freely even when the wheels are not in motion. The torque converter (or clutch in a manual transmission vehicle) serves this purpose.

The torque converter "donut" contains a fluid that acts as a power transmission medium. The engine side of the torque converter features an integrated impeller that turns with the engine. The motion of the impeller creates a current that rotates a turbine on the other side. When you stop your car, the turbine stops moving while the impeller can continue to spin freely.

What Happens If Your Torque Converter Fails?

Your car's transmission needs hydraulic power provided by a transmission fluid pump. The turbine in your torque converter drivers this pump, so a failing converter can drastically affect your transmission's performance. Insufficient hydraulic pressure can lead to sloppy or even shifts, or it may even prevent your car from shifting at all.

In many cases, torque converter failures may produce similar symptoms to more severe internal transmission problems. Fortunately, a failed torque converter typically won't require you to replace or rebuild your entire transmission. However, this job typically does require a significant amount of labor since most manufacturers locate the torque converter inside the transmission bell housing.

If you notice any change in your car's shifting behavior, it's a good idea to schedule an appointment with a transmission shop as soon as you can. Allowing your transmission to operate with insufficient fluid pressure can potentially cause more severe damage than a torque converter failure.


23 September 2021

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