In the automotive world, new ideas and change are always on the horizon, and one event that is certain to showcase the latest and greatest in automotive design and technology is the annual Tokyo Motor Show. Car companies from around the world display their one-off "dream" cars--cars of the future--in three gigantic exhibit halls near Tokyo Disneyland. The 38th Tokyo Motor Show, held during November 2004, focused on "Commercial and Barrier-free Vehicles." That by itself is news.
Toyota's Welcab series includes a wide variety of accessibility options--from sliding side doors to rear- or side-mounted lifts and hand controls--all remote-controlled.
Think of the Tokyo Show as the Super Bowl of car shows. Along with the most up-to-date production models, the automakers show off their latest megabuck high-tech whiz-bang machines staged in million-dollar settings, complete with dancers, actors, musicians, technicians and scads of miniskirted young women highlighting the products. Hundreds of corporate and political dignitaries fly in from around the world, and on a special VIP/Press Day, the Japanese royal family presides over the opening ceremony.
This year's concepts and production models hinted that Japan might soon break into the lead in automotive products for drivers with disabilities just as it has done in the U.S. with its passenger cars. And along with the new designs came an important message: Designing and marketing vehicles for disabled drivers could become an extremely important and lucrative segment of the automobile industry.
In truth, I traveled to Tokyo with misgivings. Would this be merely a token effort by the organizers of the show? Would there be nothing more than a few wheelchairs off in a corner, with the real show, the "important" part of the show, devoted to the latest trucks and buses?
Pre-show press releases indicated that accessible vehicles would be in a place called "Welfare Village," a title that was suspect. They described a "barrier-free vehicles park" where testimonials could be heard from disabled folks who "enjoy their mobility," and everyone would be invited to pilot "senior cars" and wheelchairs. The flyers said the focus was intended to be not only on barrier-free vehicles, but on related themes of "normalization" and "universal design" as these apply to automobiles.
The good news is the cynic in me was more than placated. The Japanese car companies trotted out their latest designs, and while some of the concept models--potential future designs rather than ready-for-market models--needed more practical detail input from wheelchair using consultants, there was clearly a sincere focus on designing and building barrier-free vehicles. On press day, with many drivers with disabilities, reporters and dignitaries examining the vehicles, I was lucky enough to meet Toshiaki Furukawa, a Japanese journalist and wheelchair user who studies and reports on disability and accessibility. Here are just a few of the newest Japanese products, with an insight or two courtesy of Furukawa.
It's not surprising that the largest Japanese automaker would have the glitziest display. The star of the Toyota exhibit was a bright yellow hatchback called the Welcab Concept. This one-off custom-made coupe was no larger than a Honda Civic or the current crop of Scion models that Toyota sells in the U.S., yet it had enough style and pizzazz to make your teenage son beg for the keys.
Everything in the Welcab could be handled with a remote, including the two matching, custom-built yellow and gray leather wheelchairs that replace the front seats and are built specifically to fit the car. With more attention paid to practicality and individual wheelchair design, this could one day be the perfect car for a disabled couple. It has compact twin lifts, thus allowing driver and passenger to independently board in their matching motorized custom wheelchairs. Dual sliding front doors allowed the driver and passenger chairs to face forward or swivel outward when entering without being hampered by a traditional car door that swings outward.
Inside Toyota's slick yellow Welcab Concept, the hand controls -- dubbed the "Friendmatic System"--are fully integrated, not merely bolt-on afterthoughts. The normal steering wheel with "suicide knob" configuration found in many hand-control systems is replaced with a color-coordinated low effort steering lever. On the center console is a joystick that handles all of the vehicle's driving functions, including turn signals, parking brake, gas, regular brakes, emergency flashers, etc. The system is virtually effortless, requiring only a flick of a wrist or turn of your thumb to control everything except the CD player and climate controls. Toyota isn't kidding when they say that the Welcab Concept "gives a disabled couple unprecedented mobility."
While the Welcab Concept vehicle, not available in any market, was the star of Toyota's presentation, Toyota builds a whole Welcab series of vehicles that are for sale right now--at least if you live in Japan. The vehicles are marketed in Japan through a network of Toyota Welcab dealers and are specifically designed for elderly and disabled drivers. Welcab vehicles include the Hiace van, a large van equipped to handle up to four wheelchairs; the Noah, a tiny microvan with a lowered floor and rear-entry ramp; and the Toyota Isis, a minivan equipped with side lifts and rear seats that swivel out and down.
But the gem of the Toyota Welcab series is the Toyota Porte, a racy little four cylinder coupe with demountable seats and a purpose-built wheelchair for the passenger seat [EDITOR: From available photos, it is questionable whether Japanese automakers are currently sufficiently informed to design and build wheelchairs for active lifestyle wheelers]. Though it wouldn't be the best vehicle to haul a motorized chair, for anything short of that all you need to do is throw on a set of glass pack mufflers, some sexy racing stripes and tinted windows and your Toyota Porte is either a cool ride for the younger generation or an invitation to compete with the neighbor guy who's stuck in midlife crisis.
Furukawa did find some fault with the Toyota products. They are too low, he says, which makes it difficult to transfer from his wheelchair to the factory-built chair. Consultants with disabilities should be hired to advise the engineers on ergonomic requirements for a barrier-free vehicle, says Furukawa. However, he was impressed with the ideas and considerations represented by these vehicles.
From Isuzo comes something completely new to the world of accessible motoring: a semi truck with a motor-operated lift and fully barrier-free interior.
Most of us don't generally think of Isuzu as a manufacturer of vehicles for disabled drivers. Isuzu builds a full range of trucks and buses, including accessible transit buses that are in use throughout Asia. But they also make one of the most innovative vehicles for the disability market--the Isuzu Gigamax Tractor Ability Cab--a 7,500-pound long-haul big-rig tractor that is factory built to be driven by a paraplegic.
Building a truck like the Gigamax makes sense because operating a semi truck isn't much different than driving any other motor vehicle. There are essentially two barriers: providing an automatic transmission, which most large trucks don't have, and creating an accessible passenger compartment, which is roughly 5 feet from the ground, where entry is a bit dicey even for nondisabled drivers.
From a technological standpoint, both problems can be solved. Automatic transmissions, even on large trucks, are available. As to the entry issue, Isuzu uses a motor-operated lift--one each for passenger and driver--suitable for lightweight wheelchairs specific to the vehicle. The driver or passenger locks the chair into the lift, and as the chair is lifted, the occupant removes its wheels, which then latch to the side of the chair. When the chair reaches the top (not recommended for those leery of heights), it rotates 90 degrees, and presto, you're ready to head out on the interstate.
The cab's interior is barrier free, including movable support bars and state of the art hand controls. Hats off to Isuzu! Who says you can't be a teamster in a wheelchair? Unfortunately, the Isuzu Gigamax Tractor AC isn't sold outside Asia. So don't rush out to buy a cowboy hat and learn CB radio jargon just yet.
Since 1991 Mitsubishi has offered home market buyers a series of factory built vehicles specifically modified to be user-friendly and barrier free. In typical Japanese fashion, they refer to this line of vehicles with the cutesy name of "Hearty Run" cars. Nearly all of them, whether vans, station wagons or sedans, are available in both two- and four-wheel drive. Unfortunately none of them are exported to North America in barrier-free configuration.
Mitsubishi builds two tiny rear-entry microvans (the Town Box Transporter and Minicab) with dropped floors, kneeling rear suspension and rear-entry ramp or lifts. These vehicles are much smaller and hence more economical than an American minivan. There is also a series of two- and four-wheel-drive compact sedans, station wagons and micro cars (the EK Wagon, Colt, Colt Plus, Dion and Grandis), which offer powered seats that turn to face the door, swivel outward and down to facilitate entry and exit for persons with disabilities.
The neatest machine in Mitsubishi's Hearty Run series is the Lancer Self-Transporter. It comes as either a sedan or station wagon, with two- or four-wheel drive, and is visually identical to the Mitsubishi Mirage sold in the U.S. But under the skin are many differences not found on its American cousins. On the driver's side the Self-Transporter's rear door slides backward like a van, rather than opening out. In front the Lancer has the same outward facing swivel seat as other Mitsubishi Hearty Runs, but it doesn't stop there. It also includes a remotely operated automatic loader that folds and then stows the wheelchair behind the driver's seat. One need only add the factory installed hand controls, and the Lancer Hearty Run is a completely barrier free compact sedan (or wagon) which provides all of the advantages associated with owning a small vehicle: easier to park, easier to drive and better gas mileage than a typical van.
Honda exhibited two barrier-free concept cars: the Almas Concept, a luxury van with amenities fit for royalty, and the Fit Sports Concept. While the Honda Fit is a tiny hatchback sedan sold only overseas, the Fit Sports Concept is the stuff dreams are made of. It is a highly modified Fit that has been transformed into a no-holds-barred race car, including hand controls. After all, there's no reason NASCAR and the Indy 500 can't be made truly barrier-free. If added weight is a consideration in racing, it's easy enough to pay someone to watch your wheelchair while you're cracking 200 mph on a high-banked oval race track or clutching the wheel through a hairpin curve in a full-throttle power slide at Laguna Seca Raceway. The Fit Sports Concept is just what you need to go racing.
The Honda Fit was designed with the assistance of Takuma Aoki, a champion motorcyclist on the Honda team who acquired a spinal injury in a 1998 motorcycle crash. The vehicle is operated by a hand-control system that Honda calls Power Techmatic. Aoki says the Power Techmatic system gives a direct responsive feel to the driver yet requires only slight pressure. The system adds almost no weight to the vehicle, and Aoki reports that if it is adapted to a standard motor vehicle, "it will certainly be a plus for everyday driving."
In addition to the concept vehicles, Honda builds a full line of production vehicles it calls the "Honda Welfare Vehicle Lineup," and offers two separate driving control systems for drivers with disabilities. Their Franz system was originally developed in Europe, but has been modified by Honda and now allows steering to be accomplished by back and forth motion of the foot. They offer a total of eight vehicles for the disabled, ranging from large vans to micro cars, including modified Honda Accords (called the Inspire in Japan) and Odyssey wagons. Again, none of these are sold in the U.S.
There is clearly a bright future if you are in the market for a barrier-free vehicle. In Japan at least, automakers have chosen to design and build vehicles for disabled drivers "in house" rather than have after market firms modify existing vehicles. There is advantage to both approaches. As with wheelchairs, motor vehicles for disabled drivers must often be tailor-made for specific needs. That will never change. On the other hand, there can be a distinct advantage when a vehicle is specifically designed and intended by its manufacturer for disabled people instead of starting life as an ordinary vehicle and having to be torn apart and reconstructed.
Estimates are that only 50,000 to 60,000 consumers per year in the U.S. will need modified vehicles, which is less than half of 1 percent of all new cars sold. But that number is climbing. Already in Japan 20 percent of the population is over 65, and as America's baby boomers increasingly demonstrate that everyone is better off in a barrier-free society, the market for drivers with disabilities will expand.
As an inexact experiment, I showed brochures of the Japanese barrier-free vehicles to car sales people in California. Without exception they were jealous. They knew they could easily sell these vehicles, if only they were available in the U.S. Car makers in America need to wake up and understand that there is a lucrative market waiting to be tapped. There is room for both the aftermarket companies that do a great job modifying vehicles as well as manufacturers offering factory-designed vehicles.
Ford now offers its Focus ZX3 with swivel-out seats and hand controls, and GM is reducing barriers by designing cars with improved door and trunk openings, knobs, switches, etc. And at the latest North American International Auto Show, Ford, in collaboration with Tiger Racing, exhibited a modified 2005 Mustang GT specially equipped for drivers with disabilities (see sidebar, below).
But all this is a comparatively small effort by American automakers when compared to the Japanese car companies, especially given the demand for barrier-free vehicles and range of vehicles that could be produced. We are all getting older, and eventually many more of us will need a barrier-free vehicle. Who is willing to spend the time and money to corner this lucrative market and offer drivers with disabilities more than just another minivan?
Gerald Thomas is a practicing attorney who lives in Sacramento, Calif. A former client of his was Ed Roberts, the pioneering giant of the independent living movement.
For further reports and a slide show of accessible vehicles, click here.
Mustang GT Raises Eyebrows at Detroit Show
Ford's Mobility Motoring program partnered with Tiger Racing to bring a modified 2005 Ford Mustang GT to Ford Division's main floor stand at Detroit's 2005 North American International Auto Show in January. The award-winning Mustang has been specially equipped for people with disabilities. "The car is getting a lot of attention, says Mitch Johnson of Ford's Mobility Motoring program. "This is the first time a mobility program project has appeared on the main floor. Usually most of the mobility stuff has been displayed on the bottom floor."
The 2005 Mustang GT was modified especially for Tiger Racing's Carol Hollfelder, a competitive driver and paraplegic. A special electro-hydraulically actuated paddle-shift transmission system was modified from an Aston-Martin Vanquish. Production models of the Mustang GT are not currently available with this transmission, but other features are designed with disability in mind, and Hollfelder says aftermarket hand controls are easily adapted.
"There's a passive entry system where all you do is approach the car with your key fob and the door automatically opens," says Johnson. "No buttons to push. And an in-dash programmable display is connected to cameras that give you views of the outside and rear of the car, replacing the need for side and rearview mirrors."
Johnson also recommends the Ford 500 for disabled drivers. "It's ergonomically friendly," he says. "It's the easiest car of its size to get in and out of, and it has a massive trunk." The Ford 500 was designed as a mid-size sedan with compact features but the feel of an SUV seating system. For more information about Ford's Mobility Motoring program, call 800/952-2248 or log on to www.mobility motoringprogram.com.