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Gearing up for Disabled-Friendly Car
June 17, 2010   
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Warsaw inventors are working to develop a new kind of vehicle for disabled drivers. The car’s users would be able to wheel themselves into the vehicle and drive it without getting out of their wheelchairs.

The vehicle, dubbed the KUL-car, is an electric urban vehicle that has been designed especially for wheelchair-confined people. Once developed, it will allow individuals with impairments of the lower extremities to drive a car on their own without having to get out of their wheelchairs and use other people’s assistance.

At present, wheelchair-confined people usually travel as passengers in vans and are unable to use cars whenever they feel like it. Many cars can be adapted to the individual needs of a disabled driver, but this is associated with high costs that depend on the type of disability. Such cars also need to obtain special certification as fit for use on public roads. The KUL-car will not have to undergo the certification procedure because it will be rolled out of the factory complete with the required clearance, the inventors say.

The designers
One of the KUL-car’s designers is Marlena Krzyżanowska, a graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology and the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Krzyżanowska has spent many years working as a volunteer with disabled people.

“I know how important it is for these people to feel independent of others,” Krzyżanowska says. “Being able to decide on their own what errands to run and when, go shopping or meet up with friends has a major impact on the mental well-being of disabled people.”

While working on the project, the designers have consulted potential users, an approach that has resulted in a separate luggage space for small items such as shopping bags with groceries. Space like this is rare in other vehicles of this kind, the designers say.

The car’s dimensions are adapted to make sure the car will fit into a regular parking space even when its wheelchair ramp is pulled out. That way, the driver will not have to drive around trying to find a special parking spot designated for disabled drivers.

The KUL-car designers also include Krzysztof Buczek, a postgraduate student at the System Research Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). The idea behind the project came from Bogdan Kuberacki, D.Sc., a lecturer at the Warsaw University of Technology’s Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering.

The KUL-car won the Silver Medal at last year’s Brussels Innova World Innovation, Scientific Research and New Technology Fair. It also grabbed first prize at a Polish competition for young inventors and took third place in the Polish part of the European Business Plan Competition last year.

Sense of self-reliance
The main idea behind the KUL-car is to give users a sense of self-reliance and independence, the inventors say. The vehicle is fitted with a special ramp to help users wheel themselves inside. The car’s right door opens automatically and then the ramp pulls out and moves 20 centimeters downward to let the user get on it. Then, the ramp pulls back and transports the driver into the car. KUL-car users will operate the ramp and get in and out of the car entirely on their own. They will not need to fold and unfold their wheelchairs because the wheelchair is also the driver’s seat.

The automatic ramp mechanism is a revolutionary idea, the designers say. Other innovations in the project include the arrangement of components and the type and number of batteries the car uses. Thanks to automatic transmission and hand-controlled brakes, the car can be driven using the hands only. To ensure safety, the vehicle will travel no faster than 50 kilometers per hour. The electric powertrain and composite materials make the KUL-car an environmentally friendly vehicle, according to the inventors.

Eyeing mass production
The designers have recently started work to build a prototype of the KUL-car. The ultimate goal is to launch mass production of the vehicle. The number of potential users may exceed 1 million in Poland alone, according to Krzyżanowska and Buczek.

The prototype will take around two years and zl.40,000 to build. Meanwhile, the designers are looking for a company interested in launching mass production. The producer will be able to use parts and components from the Polish golf cart Melex, which will make it possible to significantly reduce the cost, Krzyżanowska and Buczek say.

According to the designers, mass-produced KUL-cars could cost around zl.20,000 per unit, a competitive price compared with other cars for disabled drivers. However, the car will only hit the market if the designers find a partner ready to pick up the tab, Krzyżanowska and Buczek say.

Ewa Dereń
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