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Toyota has developed a fake manual transmission for EVs — why it actually matters

Guess we'll all have to learn stick shift again (sort of)

Toyota UX300e EV manual prototype
Toyota UX300e EV manual prototype Toyota / Toyota

With the electric r(ev)olution well underway, there are some unintended consequences to the march toward efficiency. Everyone of driving age (at the time of writing this, at least) has grown up with the sound of fossil-fueled powered engines. But EVs are essentially silent in their operation. While relaxing, the quiet-riding nature of these cars does take away from the visceral experience of driving that persists and car lovers are accustomed to.

Thankfully, BMW has attempted to remedy this to some degree by piping in faux engine noise through the sound system when Sport mode is engaged in their hybrid cars, which we experienced firsthand when we drove a BMW i8 on a 1,500-mile road trip to Niagara Falls and back.

But, the other big issue for those of us who actually enjoy being mentally and physically engaged in our driving experience is the lack of a manual transmission. While the stickshift has been fading for the most part of the century thus far, there has been a mild resurgence in recent years to bring back the manual (which obviously we are a fan of, if for nothing else than the shameless self-promotion). But, with every EV that gets sold on the market, that is one less manual transmission in the world… until now.

One Toyota employee, who happens to be equal parts brilliant engineer and automotive enthusiast, has come up with a solution to keep the manual transmission from going extinct in an electrified world… sort of.

Toyota prototype EV shifter
Toyota prototype electric vehicle shifter Toyota / Toyota

EVs don’t need a multi-gear transmission as much as we do

To make it clear from the jump, this EV “manual” transmission doesn’t actually do anything essential to driving the electric car it is connected to. The efficiency of EV motors is such that they have no need for a multi-gear transmission to keep the engine in the meat of its powerband because they make maximum power from 0 RPM and can spin well into the five-digit RPM range. This negates the necessity for more than one gear and, subsequently, also the need for a clutch to disengage and reengage the transmission between those nonexistent gears.

Yoichiro Isami, the engineer who came up with this crazy idea, told Inside EVs, “I have always driven manual. But in this electrified era, I have no vehicle I like. So I made this.”

“This” refers to a series of patents first spotted by BZForums.com, which were then fitted to a Lexus UX300e as a prototype model. The setup uses a traditional six-speed shifter that doesn’t actually connect to anything other than a series of microswitches. Yes, there is a clutch, and yes, it does have a specifically weighted return spring to allow for an appropriate amount of resistance to make it feel like there is a flywheel on the other end of the pedal. But, beyond that, the manual is run almost exclusively by software.

Toyota prototype EV shifter linkage
Toyota prototype EV shifter linkage setup Toyota / Toyota

Yes, you can stall, engine brake, and rev match… virtually

Despite not being “real” engine responses, the Toyota EV manual does a remarkable job of simulating gas engine characteristics even as a prototype. The digital engine sound is routed through the speakers while the tachometer notes where the predetermined redline is, and once that limit is hit, the computer will cut power to simulate the fuel cutoff of a traditional rev-limiter.

At higher speeds, downshifting increases the amount of regenerative braking the computer dials up, which replicates the feel of engine braking with a gas motor. Goose the throttle before that downshift, and the computer follows along, allowing for the feel of a perfect rev-matched shift.

Like its analog counterpart, don’t give the EV manual enough “gas” while engaging the clutch, and it will simulate a stall of the engine. Thankfully, the more troublesome aspects of stalling a traditional stick can be avoided, as the EV can sense when the rollback normally associated with a real clutch would put the car in harm’s way (read, roll into the front of the car behind it), and simply display a message on the dash telling you that you messed up but it bailed you out this time.

Before you old-school purists start barking about how this shouldn’t be, it already is with current gas engines and real manuals. The ‘hill-assist’ feature on many brands will hold the brakes (and subsequently, the car) in place until the forward progress is enough to keep it from bouncing off the car behind it.

Cruisin USA
Cruisin USA Screen Nintendo / Nintendo

Is Toyota’s EV manual a good thing or a bad thing?

While we admit at first this sounded superfluous, bordering on ridiculous, the more we thought about it, the better an idea it became. Change is inevitable, so it is better to get on board than dig your heels into an outmoded automotive landscape. Ironically, thinking about the future of manual transmission made us think of the past.

A lifetime ago, when malls and arcades were the chosen weekend pastime of teenagers everywhere, outside of Mortal Kombat and Marvel vs. Capcom, we would be inexorably drawn to racing games. But one game in particular always took the pole position (pun intended) in our ranks. That game was first called Cruisin’ USA and then later Cruisin’ World. The reason this game stood out above all others was simply because, unlike most other games, the Cruisin’ franchise offered a clutch.

Now, was this clutch necessary to play the game? Nope. Did the clutch offer any of the feedback or weight that a real clutch did? Not remotely, and even 13-year-old me knew that from sitting inside our dad’s garaged Corvette, rowing through the gears mimicking the noise of a big block Chevy as best we could, which ironically was an odd window into the future of cars to come down the road a couple of decades.

We sought out that particular game because it offered up just a fraction more engagement than other games, and even though we knew it took some imagination and arguably mild self-delusion to fully enjoy the faux clutch, that is the essence of any video game. And with the progression of the auto-verse moving from analog to digital, driving is becoming more and more like a video game as it is.

So, if we need to convince ourselves that the EV manual is truly allowing us to nail that perfect 1-2 redline shift in order to enjoy a more natural and engaging drive in the electric future, then so be it. To take it one step further, if we get to the point where the next generation Supra EV can sound like a Lamborghini Aventador SV or a Ferrari Enzo and have a manual transmission, then although we’ve been told the revolution will not be televised, it will however, be digitized.

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Lou Ruggieri
A lifelong lover of cars, Lou contributes to Motor Trend, Hot Cars, Auto & Truck Connection, and the PowerAutoMedia Group.
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