This tiny ultra-green Urbee isn’t accessible, but adaptive vehicle developers could learn a lot from its manufacturer’s design process.

This tiny ultra-green Urbee isn’t accessible, but adaptive vehicle developers could learn a lot from its manufacturer’s design process.

When VPG, the maker of the MV-1, shut its doors in May, the closing came as no great surprise to me. The company had burst into the adapted vehicle market in 2011 with big, glossy ads, a great PR campaign and a well-designed website — all claiming, among other boasts, that the MV-1 was, “the only vehicle inspired by you and factory-built for you.” However, the thing never lived up to its hype.

Initially I was willing to overlook the Tiny Tim tone of the ads. After all, a vehicle built from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible — without all the compromises and extra costs that an adapted vehicle requires — is pretty much the holy grail of crip transportation. But presenting Marc Buoniconti with the keys to the first MV-1 did little to make up for the fact that it was the brainchild of a Chicago taxi magnate, designed and built for the taxi industry — and even initially introduced as the Standard Taxi. Its wheelchair accessibility and natural gas options may have been forward thinking, but in the end, I suspect, both were just PC-friendly ways to qualify for government funds.

Unfortunately, it proved to be neither a very practical taxi nor a satisfactory accessible vehicle. Taxi owners balked at the vehicle’s price and poor gas mileage. Wheelers who wanted to drive it found there were no provisions for them to do so. And, non-driving wheelers needed only to compare the MV-1’s features and costs with the adapted vehicles already offered by their local mobility dealers to find that, despite VPG’s over-inflated boasts, there were a number of competitive choices available to them.

When I reviewed the MV-1 shortly after its introduction, I was clear about its faults as a personal mobility vehicle. I was equally clear that I liked it as an accessible taxi. Last year when New York City fought an ADA lawsuit challenging its right to choose the inaccessible Nissan NV200 van to be its Taxi of Tomorrow — which would require most of the city’s 13,000-plus taxis to be replaced with Nissans when they aged out of service — I wondered if VPG could survive without access to that huge market.

VPG may have had the same concern. It ceased production by the end of June 2012, just about the same time the ADA lawsuit lost a major round in court. But it didn’t go away without a fight. In August 2012 VPG petitioned the Federal Transit Authority to rescind the Buy American waiver the mobility industry had received, allowing minivans adapted in the U.S. to qualify for federal funding where applicable.

VPG won that battle, making the MV-1 the only accessible vehicle that could qualify for federal funds. (The mobility industry is currently appealing that decision.) Unfortunately that didn’t stop New York from making its approval of Nissan final, although we may not have seen the last of that battle, nor did it stop VPG from shedding all but three of its employees last October.

What Was Lacking?
VPG’s careless disregard of wheelers’ wants and desires had much to do with the MV-1’s failure as a personal mobility vehicle. The company forgot that we’re just like any other consumer, except we sit down a lot. Which means that, along with accessibility, dependability and cost — style, comfort, performance and status also weigh heavily on our buying decisions.

Still, it’s a damn shame the MV-1 never lived up to its promises. It could have been a game-changer, much like ramped minivans were. I saw the concern on mobility dealers’ faces and heard their worries when the MV-1 was launched. And I saw their relief once they saw it up close. But even though VPG failed, the rest of the mobility industry could learn a valuable lesson from the interest and excitement that the MV-1 generated.

There’s a strong desire for something different, something better. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a crip say, “If I were out of the chair, I could be driving a (fill in the blank) for what my van cost.” I’ve said the same thing too, many times. In my case it would be a Porsche Boxster.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my adapted Toyota. It’s easily the best adapted vehicle I’ve owned. Still, I’m appalled at the minivan’s poor mileage, the high cost of its modification and a few of the modification’s persistent and costly glitches.

But the real crying shame is that no one has been able to come up with an entry level adapted vehicle. Just think, a walkie can buy a new entry level car for as little as $12,000, while a crip is lucky to get out of a mobility dealer’s showroom with anything near $40,000. Can you imagine the market for something more affordable?

The Future is Now
Fortunately these are exciting times. Crowd funding websites like Kickstarter are enabling start-up companies to raise funds on the Internet. New manufacturing techniques like 3-D printing are starting to make developing and manufacturing items cheaper, better and faster. Yes, VPG burned through $400 million of venture capital and $50 million of government money and failed. But there are change agents out there already showing that far more can be done for far less.

Kor Ecologic, in Winnipeg, Canada, has already completed its first prototype of the Urbee, an inexpensive three-wheel, two-person, computer-designed, 3-D printed (body and interior), energy-efficient, hybrid car capable of cruising at highway speed. The company is currently crowdfunding for the Urbee 2. Kor Ecologic plans to drive it from New York to San Francisco in 2015, two people and a dog, in two days, using just 10 gallons of bio-fuel.

True, it’s not accessible and never will be. But some of Kor’s goals would be good for any accessible vehicle designer to remember. Keep it simple to understand, build and repair. Make it as safe as possible. Meet the same standards and regulations as regular cars. Be buildable in small quantities — to get it into the market as quickly as possible. Be mass producible, so the cost can come down as volume ramps up. Be affordable. Be visually appealing.

It’s not like crips can’t design or inspire others to come up with a true designed-and-built-from-the ground-up accessible vehicle. Most of the current mobility companies were founded by wheelers or their family, friends or acquaintances. Surely one of us out there has an idea or a plan they think just might work. Or maybe someone has a project out there that’s already under development.

There’s a whole world of wheelers out there who would welcome something like that. And I’d love to hear about it.