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A trip to the Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama (Part 2): Save the manuals, and make cars NEO

Talk Box

Going electric doesn’t mean ditching the stick shift, but you can actually lose the pedals

MANUAL BEVThe liftback Toyota AE86 (also known as the Toyota Corolla Levin) looks pristine from the outside, belying the four decades since its debut — when it first captured the imagination of what would be a devoted fan base to this day.

This particular one is growling as I get on board and am strapped onto the front passenger seat. I note that the car even dons roll bars to complete the sporty look.

The driver is grinning broadly at me as I nod my head to indicate I’m ready. I look around the cabin and see what appears to be a large, exposed engine right behind us where the rear seats should be, then wonder: Shouldn’t the cabin be insanely warm, nay, hot, I asked myself.

With the passenger door shut, the AE86 sets off like a rocket, the driver adroitly working the manual shifter. The engine note is superb and satisfying — matching the aggressive move of the vehicle as it makes a sweeping left turn, almost hugging the orange cones that mark our playground in this part of the Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama. The tires squeal a bit but resist the momentum to go sideways.

I smile and thank the driver before alighting from the AE86. I remember being told that it was a battery electric vehicle, but I am still in a daze because my senses registered otherwise.

But indeed, emblazoned on the AE86 side in Japanese characters are “electric vehicle” and “experimental,” along with a simple “EV” branding on the lower part of the door near the rocker panel. Yes, I have just been driven aboard a manual-shifting, ICE (internal combustion engine)-sounding electric vehicle.

Later, in another location, we take our turns driving a Lexus UX crossover. A manual gear shift juts out beside me, and a clutch pedal confirms that it’s a manual. This time, I’m in the driver’s seat. However, there’s also a “D” button below the shifter. What’s going on here? The engineer beside me laughs and asks me to turn off the engine, then step on the clutch as I restart it. A roar ensues as the engine comes to life. “You’re on manual mode,” he reports, and smiles broadly.

What’s the big deal, you ask?

Well, again, this is a battery electric vehicle. There’s no ICE of any sort, shape, or form under the hood of this manual transmission.

Save the manuals, you say? Toyota and Lexus hear you.

I maneuver the UX past pylons marking the end of the pitlane of this particular test circuit in this 1,600-acre laboratory and, yes, playground for Toyota and Lexus R&D. For sure, there’s a bunch of test tracks, strips, and pads here — and I’m entering what is presumably the speed oval, evidenced by the steeply banking curve that can be taken only at high velocity.

But there’s no compunction to go fast this time; on the agenda is to feel and experience the progress the car maker has made on several fronts — including, yes, manual BEVs. Obviously, the advent of full electrics is seen as a wet blanket by many manual-shift fans. The almost forgone conclusion that one day everything that moves will be battery-powered is further raining on the parade of holdouts (like this writer, who drives a manual).

Well, not necessarily, says Toyota.

Back to our UX, it quickly proves to be a complete sensorial package that delivers all the good stuff you know about manuals — down to providing some degree of shift shock. There’s an aural feedback as well of increasing (though phantom) engine revs, delivered through the speakers within.

Perhaps even more impressive: In one of the circuit straights, I am asked to downshift at speed to see what happens. I let out a “wow” upon feeling the unmistakable deceleration brought about by “engine braking.” Again, this is all phantom stuff bereft of the mechanical (i.e. real) cause of the deceleration. Everything but the soot and smoke.

To be sure, I have a “mind-blown” look as I alight from the UX. I understandably have questions as well, which I promptly convey to the engineer in charge. What’s the soonest we can have a production version of the manual BEV tech?

“We already have the plan, but we cannot answer clearly which year. In a few years’ time… We’re still in the development phase (before) mass production,” says Advance Electrification Engineering Division Number 2 Project Manager Yoichiro Isami.

This much we are allowed to know: The manual BEV feature will debut in the Lexus RZ, and the existing paddle-shift system employs tech that is “very similar” to this. Mr. Isami added that at some point, we should be seeing GR models get this technology as well.

So then I ask, why was this feature developed? Was there a clamor from existing customers to have manual BEVs? “It’s not that customers asked us to,” he continues. “The brand concept for Lexus is that we want to expand the experience of customers so they can enjoy the fun of maneuvering Lexus BEVs; the control of driving and fun of running the car. We have been very much into pursuing that and we want to expand that value — expand the range — in various ways.”

NEO STEERInclusivity is a clear theme not just for the biannual Japan Mobility Show or JMS (and this is exactly among the reasons why it was rechristened from its original “Tokyo Motor Show” moniker), but Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) in particular. “Our mission at Toyota is to meet the needs of customers around the world and continue delivering diverse mobility options,” underscored TMC President and CEO Koji Sato in his speech at the brand’s Tokyo Big Sight booth during the JMS a couple of weeks ago. “This is the multi-pathway approach to the future that Toyota envisions.”

He continued, “There are many diverse needs and values as there are people in the world… The future is not decided by someone else; the future is something we all create.”

Toyota has always been consistent about including the differently abled when talking about mobility. In fact, before the COVID-19 pandemic happened, the firm had earnestly embarked on its “Start Your Impossible” campaign as a run-up to what would have been Japan’s 2020 hosting of the Olympics. It had famously brought together para-athletes from various countries (including our own para-swimming champ Ernie Gawilan) to sponsor their quest for gold and even their advocacies.

Before the pandemic scuttled 2020 for many of us, Toyota was already furthering its “commitment to supporting the creation of a more inclusive and sustainable society in which everyone can challenge their impossible,” talking about a “barrier-free society.”

Fast-forward to JMS, one of the features at the Toyota booth is, at first glance, a driving game featuring a yoke-type steering wheel that collected the throttle and brake controls. Called NEO Steer, this is a whole new cockpit concept that enables pedal-free operation of a vehicle, opening doors to those with lower-limb impairment. “A sweeping field of vision made possible by the steering wheel’s irregular profile, and the roomy pedal-free floor space, enable an unrestricted driving position along with smooth entry and exit,” shares Toyota in a release.

Back to Shimoyama, we are able to try more than just a video simulator. With an engineer in the front passenger seat, I pilot another Lexus RZ — this one featuring the technology. Upon buckling in, my feet instantly try to feel for the non-existent pedals, and a sort of initial panic sets in. My muscle memory is causing me to feel alarm.

But the fear dissipates when I am taught the basics of operation (see the rendering), then we set off. There’s obviously a learning curve, but even if you’re not a gamer who should be familiar with all sorts of controllers, the NEO Steer system is pretty easy to adjust to. However, we did give some feedback that the brake lever needs to be a little more subtle so we could feather it. Having said that, the system proves fairly straightforward to learn.

Toyota and Lexus engineers are very coy about timelines and such. It’s quite early days if you ask them. Besides, the exercise is about showcasing feature sets that they’re feverishly working on — even if they are still a bit raw. “We want the functionalities up really quick and get people such as the media inside the car,” submits Lexus Electrified Development Division Group Manager Yoichiro Kasai. It’s about finding out what’s usable in a real-world situation, and yes, feedback from people such as media practitioners will influence the final version of the product.

Even if Toyota and Lexus aren’t saying exactly when, the presumably near future looks plenty exciting for mobility.


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