Making Manual Transmissions More Fun & Easy

By John Otto

Synchro-Clutch patent picture3It may seem presumptuous for me to claim the title of “inventor.” That’s usually reserved for legends, guys like Tesla, Benz and Wankel. But the title of inventor has captivated me since grade school – to be in the league of independent minds, pioneers at the frontier of creativity, the pursuers of patents.

I am an inventor, but you may call me John.

The problem I am solving is a response to the dated design of the H-Pattern manual transmission or MTX, and the advent of “complicated automatics” like paddle shifters. I’ve invented a clutch-less manual transmission, offering the hands-on, gear-changing experience without a foot-operated clutch.

The seeds for this idea were planted by my band teacher when I was a junior in high school. He had purchased a BMW Z3 convertible as his fun car and I was curious about his new toy. “What year is she?” “How many miles does she have?” “Since it’s your fun car, she has a manual transmission, right?”

I was disappointed when his responded with, “No, she’s an automatic. I’m too old to deal with the clutching and shifting when I just want to have fun.”

The idea of the Synchro-Clutch began to take root.

Fast forward three years to my college sophomore year. I was majoring in mechanical engineering. While performing the underappreciated task of designated driver, one of my passengers began babbling about how she hated the coordination required of her manual transmission Jeep. She disliked the simultaneous clutching and shifting actions required, especially in traffic, but she loved the reliability and better gas mileage she got compared to her friend’s automatic Jeep.

The seed that had been planted almost three years earlier had germinated – I was going to solve the problem and make an easier manual clutch mechanism.

I raced back to my apartment intent on finding out exactly how manual transmissions worked. By 1 a.m. I was engrossed in “” and David Macaulay’s book The Way Things Work. By the wee hours I had a basic understanding of the physical principles that govern manual clutch transmissions. By dawn I had figured it out.

“Take the fun part of driving a manual transmission – traversing the H-Pattern – and integrate the cumbersome coordination of manipulating the clutch pedal into the same shifting motion!”

That night in October of 2006, the seeds of the Synchro-Clutch had sprouted. My naiveté about the patent world and actions taken later that night would start the clock ticking on the timeline I am still bound to today.

In high school I had taken a series of college-level engineering courses through a cooperative program with the Rochester Institute of Technology called Project Lead the Way. During the capstone course, Engineering Design and Development, I learned helpful information regarding protection of one’s intellectual property.

It was mandatory to keep a notebook of all our ideas related to the projects we tackled that year. Each required the dated signature of a classmate verifying that the idea was ours and understood by a colleague. I applied this practice the night I created the first Synchro-Clutch related document.

My roommate, who also majored in mechanical engineering, agreed to read over my documents to help vouch for my invention. My experience maxed out, I was now in the world of patenting potential and my gut told me I needed the assistance of a professional.

Early in 2007 I contacted various patent attorneys near my university. Of the five letters I sent explaining my idea and my cash-strapped college-student financial situation, only one attorney responded. At our first meeting, we discussed the Synchro-Clutch – what it was, how I foresaw it working mechanically, my work thus far and what I wanted its future to be.

We decided the best course was to conduct a prior-art search of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records to see if any current or expired technology directly competed with the Synchro-Clutch.

Meanwhile, I started working with my grandfather on a wooden proof-of-concept of the Synchro-Clutch design. We created model after model, each providing greater insight than the one before it. Without access to the advanced solid modeling software I had used in school, these models became the best source of problem-solving available to me.

We tried to make a mock-up of how a single shift gate would work. It didn’t – but analyzing the failed test helped me appreciate the trigonometry and other calculations I had scoffed at while in school. Since then mathematical analysis of the project has been essential and it brings a smile to my face when I use the phrase “according to my calculations.”

After many long, expensive and, in retrospect, slightly unnecessary attorney meetings, the results of the patent search came back. Nothing had been created in the United States that solved the problem I set out to solve in the same way I planned to solve it. I was ecstatic! What better news could a 19-year-old inventor receive than a green light in one of the most extensive IP pools in the world? But I was broke. I needed investors – fast.

Capital was a priority. I also needed to move forward with the provisional patenting process, which would grant me U.S. patent pending status. I decided that I might have better leverage selling this technology if it were broken into two different IP entities.

The first is the specific clutch-type device I conceived to solve the MTX problem, which has additional applications to rotating systems other than just vehicles. The second is the unique shifting operation to make a Synchro-Clutch equipped vehicle simpler and easier to use yet equally as effective as current designs. Desire to learn this part of the patenting process coupled with my lack of funds dictated that I write all but the legal claims section of both IP documents.

In late 2008, the timeline initiated by my college roommate’s signature and the security of the provisional patent status prompted the question, “How much of the world do I want to offer this technology to?” There are two choices. Either the IP stayed only in the United States or I could pursue the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and open this technology to the world. The initial phase of the of economic recession requiring bailouts of two-thirds of the Big Three U.S. automakers; in conjunction with research confirming that the dominant transmission type outside of the U.S. is the MTX, compelled me to choose the latter.

Advice from my attorney also prompted the creation of my company, Ottonomous Solutions LLC, as a platform to bridge the nuances of patent law with investors to increase confidence. I began giving presentations to acquire investment capital through the “angel network” of family and friends. They were successful, but IP protection is expensive, especially when taking on the world with multiple documents and capital still remains thin.

The two IP entities related to the Synchro-Clutch are patent pending as International-Phase PCT patent applications. Although expensive, it opens up protection to the countries that agree to the terms of the PCT, which includes the United States. It also includes an international patent search that explores the same World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) database that the PCT applications are published to after the international phase applications are filed.

I am happy to report that both Synchro-Clutch IP entities resulted in the best possible ratings for novelty, inventive step, and industrial applicability that one can have according to the WIPO. I have until April 2010 to decide which PCT countries will receive National-Phase filing of the IP and how to pay for it. Unless, however, a company decides it wants to purchase or license the Synchro-Clutch IP for its own use – a consistent goal of mine since that night in 2006.

My latest work with the Synchro-Clutch project has been the design and professional fabrication of a prototype for installation in a small vehicle. The archetype is a four-speed, chain-drive gear-box that investigates many facets of the invention with the main focus being on stopped and low speed driving situations, such as the traffic scenario that helped inspire the idea.

In addition, I designed the prototype with Synchro-Clutches present on all four gears to verify my theory that the invention may allow for completely clutch-less traversing of the H-pattern of a Synchro-Clutch equipped transmission. Unfortunately fabrication quotes have been slow in coming, but a complete and working prototype should be in the process of testing as you read this article.

History can claim only one Tesla, one Wankel, but I title myself as an inventor because of the positive reports received from the WIPO. In the face of naysayers, advanced manual-like automatics and against the very steep mountain that is the world automotive industry, I am committed to the Synchro-Clutch and the potential it has to make the manual transmission an even more fun and continually practical part of a driver’s experience.

Editor’s note: This article appears in the April 2010 print edition.