Hydraulic automatic transmissions are almost always less energy efficient than manual transmissions due mainly to viscous and pumping losses; both in the torque converter and the hydraulic actuators. A relatively small amount of energy is required to pressurize the hydraulic control system, which uses fluid pressure to determine the correct shifting patterns and operate the various automatic clutch mechanisms.
Manual transmissions use a mechanical clutch to transmit torque, rather than a torque converter, thus avoiding the primary source of loss in an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions also avoid the power requirement of the hydraulic control system, by relying on the human muscle power of the vehicle operator to disengage the clutch and actuate the gear levers, and the mental power of the operator to make appropriate gear ratio selections. Thus the manual transmission requires very little engine power to function, with the main power consumption due to drag from the gear train being immersed in the lubricating oil of the gearbox.
The energy efficiency of automatic transmission has increased with the introduction of the torque converter lock-up clutch, which practically eliminates fluid losses when engaged. Modern automatic transmission also minimize energy usage and complexity, by minimizing the amount of shifting logic that is done hydraulically. Typically, control of the transmission has been transferred to computerized control systems which do not use fluid pressure for shift logic or actuation of clutching mechanisms.
The on road acceleration of an automatic transmission can occasionally exceed that of an otherwise identical vehicle equipped with a manual transmission in turbocharged diesel applications. Turbo-boost is normally lost between gear changes in a manual whereas in an automatic the accelerator pedal can remain fully depressed. This however is still largely dependent upon the number and optimal spacing of gear ratios for each unit, and whether or not the elimination of spool down / accelerator lift off represent a significant enough gain to counter the slightly higher power consumption of the automatic transmission itself.