Bright Spark

Striking out along a different path

How many drivers will really miss the experience of driving a car with a manual gearbox when the world goes electric? Toyota clearly thinks that the number is significant if a recent series of patent filings is anything to go by. This registration, it appears, shows that the company is working on technologies that would allow it to produce electric cars that behave exactly like cars with internal combustion engines and manual gearboxes.

Personally, I’m a bit sceptical. One of the great things about electric cars is their ability to pull effortlessly with maximum torque from zero revs. This, in turn, allows most of them to operate via a single fixed gear, dispensing with the faff of gear-changing – whether manual or automatic – altogether. Making an electric car behave like a petrol or a diesel manual seems to me to involve deliberately engineering out what makes it so effective. Perhaps the development effort involved would be better directed at improving the normal parameters of electric vehicle performance – battery efficiency, range, and so on.

I’m not against manual gearboxes as such. In fact, last year I bought what will probably be my last fossil-fuelled car, which I expect will be a ‘keeper’, to be run alongside whichever electric vehicle I run in future. I chose a manual gearbox precisely because I think it will provide an interesting, increasingly ‘antique’ experience to contrast with the smoothness of electric. But I think the appeal of manual cars is over-rated. Most luxurious and sporty cars have abandoned them and the main interest now seems to come – perversely perhaps – from the auto-dominated USA, where the ability to handle a manual shift is often seen as an incredibly difficult to master, separates-the-men-from-the-boys skill that gives entry to the exclusive club of drivers of sporty cars – even though the average seventeen-year old European is more than capable of getting the hang of it after just a few driving lessons in a Ford Fiesta or a Volkswagen Polo.

Another slightly odd aspect of Toyota’s interest in doing a ‘manual’ EV is that for hybrids, it has used epicyclic gearboxes that behave like continuously variable transmissions, while leaving the sale of manual gearbox hybrids that allow drivers to shift for themselves to its rival Honda.

As well as the electric manual, Toyota recently came up with another idea to help fans of internal combustion engines transition to alternative fuels – a co-operation with Yamaha (which knows a thing or two about engines) on a hydrogen-powered V8. Once again, this initiative seems to have its odd side. Toyota has already been promoting hydrogen as an alternative to pure battery vehicles, but previously that effort has centred on hydrogen fuel cells and its (rather impressive) Mirai models, rather than internal combustion engines. In simple terms, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be seen as a subset of electric vehicles, the difference being that they rely on the fuel cell as their main source of energy rather than a large battery. The driving experience is more or less the same as for any electric vehicle on the road. 

Many years ago, BMW demonstrated a 7 Series with a hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine along the lines of the Toyota/Yamaha project. I had the chance to drive it, and if my memory serves me correctly, it drove very well, but the hydrogen tank took up a very large amount of space. I’m assuming the idea was to preserve what would then have been thought of as the essential elements of the BMW experience in the transition to alternative fuels, in particular the company’s trademark inline six-cylinder engines, but BMW now seems as committed to pure electric vehicles as anyone else.

With its continuing large sales of hybrids, its electric manuals, and its emphasis on hydrogen, Toyota seems to be following its own distinctive path to a carbon-free future at a time when most other manufacturers are putting all, or at least far more of their eggs in the pure EV basket – although perhaps projects such as the electric manual and the hydrogen V8 are niche initiatives for small specialised markets and we shouldn’t read too much into them when it comes to working out what Toyota’s overall plan is.

But every time I start to puzzle at what Toyota is up to, I come back to one simple fact. Toyota is arguably the most successful car maker on the planet, and it didn’t arrive at that enviable position by getting the big bets wrong.

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