1st March 2003
Karen J Zielinski
Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis
GETTING INTO A LOW-SLUNG sedan often takes a bit of planning. My mom can easily slide into the passenger seat in my minivan when she puts her hand in a hook near the passenger seat. It's amazing that such a simple thing like a thoughtfully placed hook can make getting in and out of today's vehicles easier.
Car manufacturers are realizing that there's a large, untapped market out there: those who are aging and those with special physical needs. Companies are doing something about it too.
The New Sedan Market
Bill Lovejoy, the General Motors (GM) group vice president of sales and marketing, realized how inaccessible a typical passenger sedan could be after his father-in-law suffered a stroke 5 years ago, leaving him partially paralyzed.
"Going in and out of nursing homes and seeing people struggle with this, it wasn't something I had ever noticed before," Lovejoy told The Detroit News. Now he's leading GM's efforts to improve its midsized and large sedans for the elderly and those with disabilities.
Gary Talbot is an engineer and head of GM's 3-year-old Mobility Center. Ten engineers and designers have spent 4 months studying high-volume GM cars such as the Chevrolet Impala and Buick LeSabre. They're studying ways to improve door and truck openings, hinges, and interior handles, knobs, and switches.
Twenty-two years ago, Talbot was paralyzed in a car accident and now uses a wheelchair. He claims the study will make the automakers' cars more accessible to the nearly 54 million Americans with disabilities. The more accessible cars could also help GM attract more customers over the age of 50, a market forecasted to grow to 116 mil. lion by 2020 from the 76 million today, Talbot said.
At the Spring 2002 New York Auto Show, Ford Motor Company showed off a version of a Focus ZX3 three-door hatchback retrofitted for those with disabilities. The car features seats that swivel out and hand-operated driving controls. But it's hard to persuade Detroit auto executives to invest in developing vehicles for the country's disabled population because the biggest profits come from pickups and full-size sport utility vehicles. These vehicles are often too expensive for those with disabilities, many of whom are unemployed and on fixed incomes, Talbot added.
The "big three" automakers-DaimlerChrysler, Ford, and GM-have some grants or money available if a customer wants to make his or her accessible. Usually, it's a fixed amount and only applies to new vehicles. (See box for more information.)
At the Mobility Center, Talbot and his team are focusing on inexpensive ways to meet the needs of those with disabilities while still making GM vehicles that are attractive to the rest of the population. The design team is examining how to retrofit existing vehicles at a lower price. Customers with disabilities often spend as much as $5,000 installing assistance equipment capable of lift. ing a wheelchair, scooter, or a person into the vehicle. Sometimes a vehicle is harder to sell after it's been customized. Talbot's team is also trying to solve that problem by designing and patenting devices that use extra seating anchors and other parts of the vehicle to lock the equipment in place without drilling large numbers of bolt holes in the floor.
As America gets older, automakers will stand to profit and help their
customers if they get on the creative track of designing vehicles for those
who are older or have special physical needs. Apparently, these large companies
have learned: If they build it, we will drive.
© 2003 Real Living with Multiple Sclerosis