The most common question I hear regarding innovation in mobility products relates to power chairs, and it’s not a positive one: Why are power chairs so behind the times when it comes to technology? After all, considering the advent of smart phones (computers in our pockets) and self-parking cars, why don’t power chairs use more advanced technologies?

It’s a valid question, and the answer is an optimistic one. But to get to the answer, we have to understand the past, present and future of power chairs.

A Brief History of the Power Chair

The “power chair” has undergone an incredible evolution from the early days of the “Invalid Tricycle” to engineers adding a motor (below) to today’s advanced models.

The concept of the power chair goes back more than 100 years, to 1912, when a combustion engine was added to a cart-like device called the “Invalid Tricycle.” Following its quick failure, George Westinghouse, a driving force in modernized electricity, produced drawings around the same era for an “electric wheelchair,” but he was unable to bring his vision to fruition before his death in 1914. In 1916, the first commercial power chair was produced, but its high cost prevented any practical success.

The concept of the power chair all but disappeared until 1953, when Canadian researcher George Klein assembled a team to motorize folding manual wheelchairs for WWII veterans. By 1954, Klein had a reliable system that used a controller, batteries, a hand control and two motors — the concept that runs power chairs today. While Klein’s design was a ground-breaking success, it was Everest & Jennings that copied the system, launching its U.S. model, the 840, in 1956.

During the 1970s, power chairs were fragile, with limited capabilities, regarded by manufacturers and society as an institutional device. Although power chairs slowly progressed over the years, there were no huge leaps in innovation until the 1980s. At that time, however, the independent living movement demanded more, and that’s when steady innovation truly began. Still, it wasn’t until about 2000 when major advancements culminated, and the power chair became a tremendous tool of independence, with power seating, high-speed motors, extended battery range and suspension as common features.
By 2006, though, major funding and coding changes dramatically slowed access to power chairs by consumers and innovation by manufacturers. Funding cuts reduced coverage across the board and eliminated many advanced technologies altogether. The tragedy of this was that many other technology sectors were booming with breakthroughs that could have benefitted power chairs — from battery innovations to advanced electronics — but the funding cuts curbed most of them. It would be 2010 before funding had stabilized enough to regain steady innovation.

Fortunately, for consumer protection, power chairs have been placed under increasingly stringent regulatory processes over the years. They are now considered an FDA Class-II Medical Device. This regulatory process affects all aspects of a power chair, from concept to manufacturing. Along the process, aspects like safety and durability are tested and proven — and it all takes time. Based on the complexity and regulatory success of a component or power chair product, it can take two to five years to move from concept to finalization, causing a sometimes unavoidable lag in feeding mainstream technologies into the FDA-regulated power chair market.

Finally, Technology is Catching Up

The good news is after years of slow progress, the power chair industry is back on track when it comes to innovation. Since 2015, we’ve seen major manufacturers introduce advanced technologies that are truly changing lives. Permobil has made gyroscope tracking technology standard on its F- and M-Series models for improved drive control. Quantum has its iLevel system that mechanically stabilizes the power base when the seat is elevated, allowing walking speed and height over varied terrain. And, Quickie’s SEDEO Ergo seating uses biometrics for advanced power positioning. Across the board, we also see Bluetooth integration for controlling electronic devices; ultra-advanced drive controls; USB ports for hand-held devices; and ever-enhanced suspension for terrain handling.

Yet there’s still a ways to go. By 2020, we should be poised to see new motor technologies, extended-range batteries, further-advanced suspension, increased smart phone and environmental interfacing, and even electronics that connect with the cloud for diagnostics, updates and servicing.

So the answer to the question of why are power chairs lagging behind technologically is currently a positive one: They are finally getting there!