Entering the exhibit at the 22nd annual National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association conference in Daytona Beach, Fla., this year, I pause. The dazzling chrome and gleaming colors of all the new vehicles and equipment on display gives me the same thrill of anticipation as I used to get entering auto shows in my walkie days. But it also reminds me how far the industry has come since I bought my first adapted van 35 years ago.
Back then my choices boiled down to which full-size van I wanted, whether to choose a platform or swing-out lift and what local mom and pop converter to use. Now I can choose from an array of minivans, full-size vans, pickup trucks, SUVs and specialty vehicles, made accessible by equipment manufacturers and second stage manufacturers and sold and serviced by local dealers. And what better place could there be to view them than the annual meeting of mobility dealers (over 600 strong) and the manufacturers who supply them?
Here’s some of what’s new and different in vehicles.
All-Terrain Conversions’ bright red Silverado extended cab pickup catches my attention with its open, top-hinged door assembly, which flips up like a modified Mercedes gull wing, leaving plenty of space for access and giving wheelers overhead protection from rain, snow or sun as they enter or exit the truck. Its patent-pending hydraulic lift system, quiet operation and speed — a wheeler can be in or out of the vehicle in 25 seconds — is equally impressive.
Founded in March 2012, the company offers conversions — wheelchair driver or passenger side — for GM trucks and SUVs. Sales are through authorized dealers only, a network that grows daily according to ATC president, Trent Bradburn, an industry veteran, who says, “The response has been overwhelming.”
Vantage Mobility International goes out of its way to show that all minivan conversions are not the same, shrouding its 2013 Toyota Sienna under a blue tarp. Later, after people gather, VMI’s national sales manager, Randy Schiller, yanks it off, revealing the new Summit Access 360 Conversion System, the result of two years’ research and development including surveys of minivan users, both VMI’s and the competition’s. Touting industry-beating figures like a 9-inch longer lowered floor, 61.8-inch interior height at center, 57-inch door-opening height and a 5.5-inch ground clearance, they claim more cabin maneuverability than their competition along with a 750-pound ramp load and other new features and benefits.
I can’t resist checking out the 360 claim myself. I get in and, with both of the van’s front seats in place and without any maneuvering, turn a 360 in my Quickie Xtender. No sweat. It’s certainly something I can’t do in my Sienna — even with the driver’s seat out.
BraunAbility has no minivans under shrouds, but the posters and brochures proclaiming its new Quiet Drive technology catch my eye anyway.
Bringing new meaning to the term hush-hush project, Braun’s engineers took dead aim at road noise, researching what noise blockers, noise reducers and noise absorbers they could use to achieve a quieter ride. Claiming it delivers up to a 25 percent overall noise reduction, the company has made Quiet Drive standard on all of its new Toyota, Chrysler, Dodge and Honda minivans.
According to Mike Neher, a C6-7 quad who works for Performance Mobility in Portland, Ore., the answer’s an unqualified yes. Over the past three months he’s had the opportunity to drive all the new Braunability minivan brands, both in city and highway traffic. “The difference is significant,” he says, “Now passengers seated in the back of the van can hear me.”
Long Island resident, Lynette Taylor, concurs. She’s been driving her new Braunability Sienna since January. Her son John, 29, who has CP, rides beside her.
“I’m able to hear my family,” she says. “I drive on New York roads. Lots of bumps. And it’s still a smooth ride. You don’t hear the road noise.”
Freedom Motors has one of the most diverse spreads of offerings at the conference. The company has long been known for its rear entry minivans and for specialty vehicles, like its adapted PT Cruisers as well as its ramped Toyota Scions and Honda Elements. For 2013 it has added Mobility SVM pickup trucks to that lineup (FMI has a national distributorship). But it’s the new FMI SC Toyota Sienna side entry conversion that’s the centerpiece of the company’s display this year.
The SC boasts a full stainless steel floor construction that limits any chance of rust and a hydraulically-powered, exclusive Iso-parabolic kneeling system — which completely disengages from the suspension when not in use — aiding in its longevity. Why hydraulics? Patrick Brent, FMI’s director of business development, says, “Earth movers and airplanes use hydraulics for a reason.” He also hints of a few new things in development that may be announced in a few months. Knowing the company’s track record for innovation, they may be fun.
Vehicle Production Group, which broke the mold for accessible vehicles by designing and building a wheelchair accessible vehicle from the ground up (MV-1), has taken a big step toward proving it’s not just an accessible taxicab manufacturer with the introduction of some far more disabled-driver friendly features for 2013. While wheelers who want to roll up to the steering wheel and drive will still be disappointed, those who like to transfer and drive independently now can, thanks to an optional transfer seat and an optional enhanced key fob, available on their new, upscale LX model, that enables independent remote operation of power door locks, power door and power ramps.
Features like rosewood accents, quilted soft leatherette upholstery, upscale electronics and 17-inch chrome alloy wheels help put the luxury in the LX. But all this comes with a higher price, of course, starting at $50,000. And as of now, driving the MV-1 independently means driving without your honey or any other companion at your side. There’s currently no provision for a seat in the front passenger position. “It’s something we plan to fix down the road — on future models,” says Ryan Zemmer, VPG’s product marketing coordinator.
NMEDA added a special bonus for local wheelers this year by opening its exhibit to the public on the last day of the conference. Hopefully it’ll do the same for next year’s conference in Reno, Nev. NMEDA could add that to the other fine services it already provides, like the accessible mobility information, advice and dealer database provided on its website.
And, as long as we’re hoping, maybe NMEDA can nudge the manufacturers to explore some new, less expensive alternatives.
• National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association, 866/948-8341; www.nmeda.com
• All-Terrain Conversions, 260/758-2525; www.atconversions.com
• Vantage Mobility International, 800/348-8267; www.vantagemobility.com
• Braunability, 800/843-5438; www.Braunability.com
• Freedom Motors, 800/625-6335; www.freedommotors.com
• Vehicle Production Group, 877/MV1-FORU; www.vpgautos.com