Although dual-clutch transmissions offer superior performance and even traditional automatics are rather good these days, there remains a small but vocal group of drivers who still demand manual transmissions. "Save the manuals" is a familiar battle cry amongst enthusiasts. Toyota has apparently been working on a unique method of partially automating the manual transmission. Motor1 reports that Toyota has filed a patent for a unique manual transmission that automates certain functions while still leaving the final gear selection up to the driver.
According to the patent application, this transmission is designed to operate like an ordinary manual transmission, but will automatically disengage the clutch and shift into neutral while the car is coasting, presumably to save fuel. Additionally, locking pins engage to prevent the driver from shifting into a gear too low or too high for the car's current speed. This keeps the engine from lugging, as well as the dreaded "money shift" that over revs and destroys the engine.
None of this is particularly earth-shattering technology. Electronic servos can easily move a gearshift lever back and forth. Locking pins not only invoked the C4 Chevy Corvette's dreaded "skip shift," they also keep most modern manual transmissions from shifting into reverse unless you really mean to back up. But this particular application of the technology is unique. It seems the transmission is only designed to shift into neutral, not to shift into gear when you want to accelerate again. This may create more work for the driver, and potentially be annoying. But the lockouts to prevent shifts into an inappropriate gear could be quite useful if programmed correctly, particularly for drivers without much experience shifting their own gears. However, if programmed strictly for fuel economy the way some dashboard lights telling you to upshift are, it could be impossible to get the engine into the powerband at the expense of economy when you need it.
But the main question we're asking is, why? Despite having certain advantages, less than three percent of new cars sold in the U.S. have a manual transmission, according to the Los Angeles Times. Why would Toyota put so much of their engineering effort into a transmission that few are likely to drive, or even know how to? Manuals are still more common in the rest of the world, but as automatic transmissions of various types have improved both in operation and in fuel economy, there is less and less reason for the average driver to row their own gears. Plus, with the push toward electrification and autonomy, the need to shift gears will disappear entirely.
Still, it's an interesting design exercise, and fascinating to see what new unique applications engineers can come up with for existing technology.