Manual Jeep & Shifterless Tesla Show The Very Different Approaches EV Manufacturers Can Take

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For this year’s Easter Jeep Safari, the company is bringing out some pretty cool functional concept Jeeps. All but one of them are gas or diesel-powered, but that last one is something that at least some CleanTechnica readers will appreciate.

Jeep’s Magneto prototype looks like any 2020 Jeep Wrangler on the outside, except for a small detail: “Magneto” decals on the side of the hood. Under the hood is something no production 2020 Jeep has: a powerful electric motor, a custom-built axial flux electric motor that operates up to 6,000 rpm. That RPM range is low compared to most EVs (even a Nissan LEAF operates above 10,000 RPM at high speeds, and Teslas can go as fast as 18,000), but that doesn’t matter in this case because Jeep coupled the motor to one of the easiest-to-drive manual transmissions ever.

Let’s go over the advantages of EV transmissions and the different approaches manufacturers are taking before going more in-depth about the Jeep concept.

Multiple Gear Ratios Help EVs

As I explained in a previous article, this can make a lot of sense for EVs. I know some of the the less informed Tesla fanboys will want to dispute me on this, but keep in mind that even Tesla runs two different gear ratios on dual-motor vehicles. They put more power to the front or rear motor depending on vehicle speed. This effectively gives many Tesla vehicles a two-speed transmission in Range Mode, so even they know that it’s a winning strategy.

This isn’t surprising, given that early Tesla Roadster (version 1) designs called for a two-speed transmission. Unfortunately, third party transmission builders couldn’t come up with a working design at the time. They couldn’t handle all of the torque and kept breaking, so Tesla went with a single-speed design and improved the electronics for power delivery instead. It took putting in two separate drive units to take advantage of the two gear ratios in later models.

More gears than two is still better, though. There are “sweet spots” in terms of torque and RPM, and by being able to run different gear ratios, you can get the EV’s motor closer to the sweet spot. The more gears you have, the more likely you’re able to get to the most efficient operating RPM in a given driving situation. Even if efficiency be damned, there are performance benefits to running more gear ratios.

For one, you can get insane torque from an electric motor in the lowest gear. In one custom EV, first gear was described as “borderline scary,” because there was so much torque going to the wheels. As you climb through the gears, you can keep the torque high, and accelerate better than a single-speed EV. Then, once at cruising speed, multi-speed gearboxes allow for range improvements of up to 15% on the highway.

EV Manufacturers Often Imitate Automatic Transmissions

Most Americans these days aren’t shifting gears, though. Hell, most people don’t know what a gear is. They just know that they step on the skinny pedal, car go brrr (haha!). For that reason, most EV builders and suppliers, like ZF, are only working on automatic transmissions for EVs. Like a dual-motor Tesla moves power to the best motor for the situation, most multi-speed electric vehicles will likely decide when to shift up or down as the situation calls for without the driver needing to think about it at all.

If I don’t enable the e-Pedal, my Nissan LEAF has “creep” like a gas or diesel car with an automatic transmission, but it makes no real sense if you think about it. ICE cars have “creep” because they need a torque converter to prevent the engine from stalling (you would press the clutch pedal in a car manual to prevent stalling). Electric motors don’t stall, so the whole “creep” thing is just there to make people migrating from ICE vehicles more comfortable. Most other EVs have “creep” by default, or at least have it as an option one can turn on and off.

Tesla Is Trying To Eliminate All Shifting

While Jeep dabbles with a manual transmission, Tesla is going the opposite direction. Even with an automatic transmission, one must select whether to be in drive, reverse, neutral, or low-gear (for descending long, steep hills in an ICE without destroying your brakes). So far, even single-speed EVs have imitated this approach, with a shifter mounted on the center console or the steering column. Now, Tesla is working on having the vehicle’s computer determine what direction the driver wants/needs in a situation, with an override on the center screen.

There are many people who will be uncomfortable with this, and with some good reasons. Personally, I’m concerned that in a stressful situation, one would have trouble overriding the computer with shaky hands (IOW, fine motor skills deteriorate when there’s adrenaline in your system). Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik even jokingly suggests rigging up an old automatic shifter from a junkyard to a severed fingertip that touches the screen so that drivers can “shift.”

Humor and issues aside, what we can see is that Tesla is heading toward eliminating all shifting (and, for some owners, eliminating all manual controls eventually).

Jeep’s Manual Transmission Is Easy To Drive

Now, let’s compare this to Jeep’s approach (a concept with a manual transmission). For those who think this is an “old fogey” thing to do, stick with me for a minute because this isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. Mark Allen, Head of Jeep Design, says this gives “the best of both worlds” when it comes to automatic vs manual operation, and he has a point.

First off, most manual EVs don’t require you to shift or even press the clutch pedal if you don’t feel like it. Many EV conversions people have done use a manual transmission, and for those, most drivers just leave it in 2nd gear most of the time. When you roll up to a red light, you can just let it go to zero RPM (electric motors don’t stall). When you’re ready to take off, just take off like any EV. There’s no need to slip the clutch when climbing over things, or hold the clutch pedal when waiting for the light to turn green.

The only time you’ll usually want to shift is if you need to get to a low gear for extra torque or a high gear for better highway efficiency. Matching RPM for shifting with heel-toe methods is completely unnecessary, due to the rotor’s small inertial mass that can quickly adjust speeds as you throw it into another gear (without quickly wiping out synchros).

Jeep’s narrow RPM range changes this up a bit, though. With a maximum of 6000 RPM, you’ll want to shift more often than the average manual EV to avoid overrevving. Jeep made this easy with its concept, though, as the computer uses regenerative braking to rev-match as you slide into the next gear (the synchros will last longer this way). All in all, it is probably one of the easiest manual transmission vehicles on the planet to drive, electric or gas.

Other Cool Jeep Magneto Features

The unique manual transmission EV system is powered by an 800 volt battery system spread across four packs placed around the vehicle for balance. Total system capacity is 70 kWh, which isn’t very far off of a Model 3. Don’t expect to get Model 3 range in a Jeep, but if driven carefully and in the right gears, it probably isn’t as far off as you’d think.

The converted Jeep concept is also optimized for off-road and wilderness use. It has two 12 volt batteries to give extra capacity for things like running a winch or powering campsite equipment. Along with custom skid plates to protect the battery packs, it has a JPP 2-inch lift kit, 17-inch Lights Out black metallic wheels with 35-inch mud-terrain tires, custom roll cage, Mopar Rock Rails, steel bumpers with a Warn winch, and a steel belly pan for added off-road capability.

Bottom Line: Different Strokes

If there was one vehicle that was objectively and subjectively better than all others, everyone would be driving that. The best manufacturer in the world would be making all of the cars, and they’d all be identical. They’d probably all be the same color, too. We’d all be wearing the same clothes because there’s a best kind of clothing (with some minor alterations to fit each of us, of course). All houses could be identical, because by now we’ve surely figured out what’s the best there, too. All women will be named Jennifer, because it’s the best name for women. All men will be named Elon, because Elon is pretty cool, so that must be the best name for men. Or, we could all go with Todd and Lorraine and ride around in an old school bus.

Or, you know, we could be realistic and realize that different people have different tastes, needs, and styles. Some people will prefer the shifterless Tesla approach. Others will want the typical automatic shifter. Some people would even want a manual transmission in an EV.

I’m glad to see all of the different approaches coming into play. That way, people with different tastes will be able to enjoy EVs. That can only increase adoption.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1886 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba