In 2012 some pictures of a bright yellow mini-hatchback vehicle designed specifically so a wheelchair user could roll in via a ramp and drive from the comfort of their own wheelchair went viral. There weren’t many details available, but the vehicle, called the Kenguru, looked slick and seemed to fill a need by providing an easy-to-use option for wheelchair users who didn’t want a modified van or the hassle of transferring in and out of a car.
Viral fame didn’t translate to immediate success for the vehicle. Funding issues and logistics problems have slowed the Kenguru’s roll to market. That delay has provided time for two new companies — Chairiot and EcoCentre — to come on board with their own hopes of carving out a new niche in the mobility market. Based on the prototypes each company has been showing and information from their websites, all three aim to offer aesthetically similar takes on a small electric low-speed vehicle just big enough for a manual wheelchair user to roll in the back. Their amenities and technical specs differ, but they all promise the ability to drive for five to eight hours at speeds of up to 25 mph on a single charge.
Whether any or all of them will actually deliver a vehicle to market remains to be seen. No one has actually purchased and driven any of the companies’ current models. Kenguru built 15 vehicles a year ago and sold them to European dealers but has not made any of a since-retooled model. At press time, Chairiot executives were meeting with their manufacturer in China and optimistic the first Chairiot solos would be shipped stateside in May. EcoCentre president Ramon Alvarez says his company is in the process of finalizing documentation and agreements for the Eco Mobility. He hopes to start taking orders in two to three months. But with expected prices ranging from $18,000-$25,000, top speeds of 25 mph and limited interior space, will the companies be able to rekindle the enthusiasm those original pictures generated, and will they be able to find a market to sustain this new vehicle-type?
The Issue: Price and Practicality
The two biggest questions wheelchair users I spoke with had when asked about their interest in these new low-speed vehicles centered around their price and practicality. Specifically, why would I spend $18,0000-25,000 on a vehicle that can’t go above 25 mph and can’t go on all roads? And, is there enough space inside the vehicle for it to serve as anything more than a shuttle? For instance, can I go to the store or take bags with me?
Stacy Zoern, the founder and CEO of Kenguru, has heard those questions countless times. Zoern got involved and helped raise the funding to bring the Kenguru to America after inquiring about buying one for herself, only to discover that the Hungarian company behind it had run out of money. As a power chair user, Zoern wouldn’t be able to use the current model of her own product, but she still sees a market for her product, even at the $25,000 price level.
“I definitely realize that a lot of people in manual chairs can drive a regular car with less expensive modifications, and I recognize that for those people this current model is really more of a secondary vehicle — it’s a moped for them,” she says. “It’s something that’s a lot easier to get in and out of and is especially great when there is bad weather. You can open it from the remote while you’re inside the building and then just zip out and roll in.”
Ralph Megna, the president and CEO of Chairiot, says the choice between a low-speed vehicle and a car with hand controls is not mutually exclusive.
“The Chairiot is best suited for someone who finds transferring themselves to a conventional vehicle difficult or time-consuming or tiresome,” he says. “After that, the Solo works as a primary vehicle for those who cannot afford a modified van and for whom the exceptionally low cost of operation and the relatively low initial purchase cost is attractive. Or, as a second vehicle for somebody who enjoys the spontaneous freedom of a vehicle they can enter and drive off in less than 40 seconds.”
Megna has been working to bring an accessible low-speed vehicle to the States since 2010. Until last spring, Megna was vice president of operations for EcoCentre, working to bring the Eco M to market. He left the company and started Chairiot, focusing on the Chairiot Solo. Megna downplays the importance of the obvious physical similarities between the three low-speed vehicles, saying that there are many differences in details and specs.
“If you put a Camaro and a Mustang next to each other, they’re both two-door cars with long front hoods and short rear decks and an unusable rear seat,” he says. “The basic concepts are very much the same, but they use different approaches.”
Where is the Market?
Each company also has a different approach to selling their vehicles, based on different assessments of the market.
Alvarez has been demoing three Eco M prototypes throughout southern California for the last six to nine months and sounds confident the vehicle will sell itself if he can get it to consumers.
“The reaction and response has been phenomenal,” he says. “Customers are wanting to order the vehicles right then and there.” He shared the story of one customer who came to his warehouse to see one of the three prototypes he is currently demoing and was “too overwhelmed” by the vehicle’s potential to actually drive.
“It’s almost overwhelming the acceptance of the vehicle within the mobility industry. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what this car could represent to the mobility sector.”
At $18,000-19,000, he is hopeful disabled veterans will use the one-time automotive grant available to them to pay for the vehicle. Low-speed vehicles could also qualify for state and federal tax exemptions. That said, Alvarez said making money isn’t his priority.
“Eco Mobility is not about the profitability of the company, because it’s a subsidiary of EcoCentre and the four other electric models we have are making money and sustaining themselves,” he says. “We just feel that if we put our grain of salt in the mobility industry, we can better the lives of some veterans and some civilians who had nowhere to go.”
Megna is looking at a similar price point for the Chairiot Solo, but says he has every intention of his venture being profitable.
“We did the math and we were still left with the belief that there is a market here in the United States for several thousand of these vehicles a year,” says Megna.
While Megna and Alvarez are primarily focused on domestic sales, Zoern is also hoping to infiltrate Europe by taking advantage of the fact most European countries don’t let teens drive cars until they are 18, but do let them drive mopeds at 16. “The whole initial idea was let’s get a moped for teenagers,” she says. She acknowledges that $25,000 is a lot, and says she hopes to bring the cost down, but doesn’t think it is unreasonable for the added freedom the vehicle provides.
All three business owners point out that the ability to avoid paying for gas will save owners a great deal in the long run.
When it comes to the vehicles’ lack of storage space, everyone knows it is an issue, but no one views it as a deal breaker. All three say they are working on ways to increase storage space, including racks and other design tweaks. Megna alluded to the fact the vehicle is named the Solo, suggesting a future product might add space or the ability for a passenger.
“If you are in a manual wheelchair and you go to the store, you’re probably not going to push a shopping cart full of groceries through the store,” says Megna. “You’re going to do a modest amount of shopping, which probably will lead to four to five bags of groceries. Four or five grocery bags will fit just fine.”
Despite all the answers and optimism coming from each of the companies, it will all be for naught if the vehicles don’t resonate with the customers in the mobility market. Dave Hubbard, the executive director and CEO of the National Mobility Equipment Dealer’s Association, has followed the industry for the last 13 years and says he can’t remember any other instances where three companies were trying to carve out a new niche in the market at the same time. He did not question the need for the accessible low-speed vehicles but did wonder about the demand. “I have not gotten any calls in here and that’s usually telling,” he says.
What’s your take? What intrigues you about these vehicles? What would you like to see? Respond to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tangled History of the Accessible LSV
In 2005, Istvan Kissaroslaki had just started working for Rehab Corp., a Hungarian medical supplier, when the emails started trickling in. Email after email kept asking about a vehicle his company allegedly built called the Kenguru. The emails described a small, low-speed electric vehicle that would allow its owner to roll in via a back hatch using a wheelchair and drive away without ever transferring. Kissaroslaki couldn’t find the vehicle in any of the company’s catalogs, so he trudged down to the basement with the head of research and development. In the corner of the basement, covered up and buried under two years of dust, sat two yellow Kengurus.
The head of research and development explained that the prototypes had been showed off around Europe after winning a design award in 2002 and then returned to Budapest and consigned to a dusty death in the basement. Kissaroslaki saw problems with the prototypes — the driver had to use a special manual chair to drive, and there was not enough space for the casters to turn — but he was intrigued enough by the potential to ask the board for funding so he could keep looking into the Kenguru’s viability.
Rehab Corp. eventually partnered with Changzhou Greenland Vehicle Company, a Chinese company, to manufacture the vehicles. But three years later Rehab Corp. terminated the contract and ended its involvement with the Kenguru. Kissaroslaki persevered and formed Kenguru Service LLC to pursue bringing the car to market on his own, eventually partnering with Stacy Zoern in 2010 to form Community Cars (now Kenguru).
Kissaroslaki and Zoern are now working with an Alabama company to manufacture a fourth generation Kenguru. In a strange game of business musical chairs, Changzhou Greenland Vehicle Company now shows a vehicle resembling the Kenguru on its website called the Kangaroo and has since partnered with Chairiot and EcoCentre to develop the Chairiot Solo and Eco Mobility.
• Kangaroo, Greenland Vehicle Company, www.gl-ev.com/en/main.php