The fear of electric vehicles (EVs) is beginning to ebb. Sales increased by 40% in 2022, proving their growing popularity. There is still a long way to go before they replace their petrol and diesel competitors for good. But we are certainly heading that way quickly.
EVs are set to become a mainstream mode of transportation. To achieve this goal, they need to be accessible to all drivers. For example, are there practical and affordable options for wheelchair users? Or are there barriers that will hinder widespread adoption?
Everyone should be able to transition to a smoother and greener driving experience. Is this something manufacturers are working towards? Have they achieved this already? To find out, let’s explore the current and potential design opportunities for wheelchair accessibility.
The potential of EVs for inclusive transport
Could EVs be the right choice for someone with a disability? The answer is a resounding yes for many. But why is this the case? Because they are not built with the restrictions of physical components. Without an engine in the way, the floor can be flatter, and there are fewer obstacles in the interior. This potentially can make the space more wheelchair-friendly.
Also, the standard safety measures in electric cars are usually better. You’ll find a wide range of features, depending on the model or brand. Automatic braking, advanced driver assistance systems, and blind spot monitoring are all worth noting. These can build the confidence of drivers with disabilities and empower them to get on the roads.
Below are some other ways EVs can facilitate inclusive transport.
easier operation (no gear changes, for example)
lower running costs make them accessible for those who can’t work
no struggling to navigate petrol stations and pay points
can be modified easier than traditional vehicles
less noise pollution supports those with conditions like sensory overload or tinnitus
The potential is there. But research shows the needs of wheelchair users are not being sufficiently considered. This means these advantages are not enough to support a shift to electrification. A more user-centric and collaborative design approach is needed first.
Considerations for inclusive EV design
Accessibility should be a fundamental value for vehicle manufacturers. So much of our lives depend on their products. One way to encourage this is to create universal design guidelines. Sharing these around the industry would make it easier for others to follow.
Keep in mind not everyone will have the same needs. Some drivers may require a professional to tailor their EVs. Either for mobility levels, specific equipment, or budget.
But here are some general adaptations that would be a common requirement for drivers.
belts and tie-downs to keep the wheelchair in position
larger space to accommodate equipment
a lift or ramp that can be automated if required
wider door openings
an adjustable or removable seat
Progress is being made. These things are no longer an impossible goal. But areas of the EV experience are being overlooked by carmakers and stakeholders. Possibly because they do not have a full understanding of the challenges for themselves.
Here are some important considerations that will bridge the gap in accessibility for good.
1. Improving charging infrastructure
There are many reasons why a wheelchair user may find it difficult to install an EV charger at home. Firstly, they have a significant upfront cost of between £500 and £1000 each. Also, the homeowner may not find a location that is easily accessible. They could struggle with the physical demands without someone at home to assist them.
But when you have additional needs, public charging infrastructure can’t always be relied upon either. There isn’t always equipment near accessible parking spaces. The placement and height are typically designed for non-wheelchair users, which can make them useless. Also, some people may struggle to access the apps that tell them about available spaces.
Here are some things that can be done to tackle these challenges.
reserve charging stations for blue badge holders
make sure the signage is visible
position the stations away from footpaths or other obstacles
make the charging cables light-weight
larger parking spaces to accommodate for WAVs and manoeuvring
2. Balancing functionality and aesthetic
We aren’t shallow when we talk about aesthetics. The way a vehicle looks has a huge impact on its success and the user’s wellbeing. An attractive car will have more market appeal. The adoption rate will increase. Higher demand encourages carmakers to innovate and develop further. Wheelchair-accessible EVs will only get better and better.
The benefits don’t stop there. A good-looking design creates a sense of normalcy. An EV that sticks out like a sore thumb may encourage social stigma or stereotyping. The driver could feel isolated, different, or self-conscious. They would likely avoid the roads after this.
What can we do to prevent this from happening?
work on a design that’s small enough to fit in a garage
use sleek colours on the exterior
engaging marketing to help reshape public perceptions
craft each EV with high-quality materials
don’t design the wheelchair equipment and adjustments to stand out
3. Encouraging collaboration
When it comes to inclusivity, there shouldn’t be any guesswork. You need first-hand knowledge of what’s important. The only way to get this is a deep understanding of the driver. They should be at the heart of each decision made for a truly user-centric design.
There are risks if you don’t consult with wheelchair users. Carmakers may exclude a feature that would’ve been crucial to adoption. The solutions offered might not be effective or practical. And shortcomings won’t be identified before the production process is done.
To avoid this, here are some actions that should be taken.
influential companies can partner with accessibility advocates
always have a person with a disability testing the end product
include wheelchair users’ feedback in every step of the process
carmakers should work with vehicle modification specialists
use things like surveys, interviews, and reports to find pain points
4. Applying safety measures
Transportation needs to be reliable, boost confidence, and be safe. But safety should be given even more thought in the production of an accessible EV. Unique needs, physical limitations, and the potential for vulnerabilities cannot be overlooked in the design process.
Also, people with disabilities could have concerns that other drivers don’t. If they are alone in an emergency situation, they won’t be able to act fast. Their short-range anxiety is increased because many public facilities aren’t accessible. Anyone on the road should feel calm and comfortable. Safety measures achieve this by making the driver feel secure.
Below are just a few examples of what can be done.
a roadside service exclusive to wheelchair-accessible EVs for break-downs
options for lifts or ramps depending on the size of the vehicle
cushions and rests for the body to prevent soreness or injury
features like large buttons, intuitive controls, and voice activation for usability
researching cordless and portable chargers that won’t get in the way
5. Implementing innovative technology
Technology creates an inclusive environment for people with disabilities. Screen reading software in the workplace helps people process documents. Assistive robotic limbs let gamers enjoy their passions as anyone else would. And innovations allow wheelchair users to navigate the roads, and their EVs, with ease.
We have a long way to go until everyone gets a self-driving car. While EVs are not this accommodating yet, it is a hope for the future. Even without fully autonomous vehicles, technology pushes us towards wider inclusive transport. Implementing new ideas and developments will lead to bright solutions.
Let’s look at how machines can be optimised in EVs.
assistive technologies like joysticks and touchscreens
hand controls for braking and accelerating
chargers for electric wheelchairs for efficient and longer trips
intelligent battery management to reduce the stress of getting stranded
build EVs with a voice assistant to help the driver understand the features
6. Providing training
An inclusive design is only successful if the driver understands it. There are several reasons why they might not. An older user might find the technology we mentioned above confusing or impossible to work with. For others, this experience could be their first time driving because of previous inaccessibility. Support, education, and training are pivotal.
Training helps the driver to get to grips with their new vehicle. But it does more than that. It gives them the tools to optimise their experience. They won’t just brave a trip to the shop, they’ll be empowered to organise a road trip. It will help them determine whether they’re ready for the change and reduce the likelihood of accidents too. Education like this is a no-brainer.
Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling.
car dealerships could provide a free training day when someone buys a car
build an interactive or VR platform where the driver can get used to the controls
encourage a community for wheelchair users to share experiences and advice
start workshops and driving courses designed for users with additional needs
provide a manual that bares all learning, visual, and other impediments in mind
Companies worth watching
It’s fair to say wheelchair accessibility and EVs don’t yet go hand in hand. But some companies have been looking at changing this. Some are working towards revolutionary solutions. Others have already achieved something incredible. Either way, here are some of the businesses designing inclusive transport for all.
If there’s a company you should know about, it’s Brotherwood. These industry leaders created the UK’s first electric wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV). Their latest model, the Vauxhall Vivaro e-Life, promises to deliver even more comfort and space to the driver.
Here are some of its most notable features.
flat and level floor conversion
powerful climate control
a ’whisper quiet’ electric drivetrain
an air suspension that filters out unevenness in the road surface
It is a great option for a family with a non-wheelchair driver or someone who doesn’t solely rely on one. The quietness of the drive and the spacious interior make travelling socially in groups or with family more enjoyable. This is something many of us take for granted.
This company is a powerful team-up of Elap and Tripod Mobility. As expected, this collaboration brought about innovative solutions. They’ve designed a range of vehicle conversions with their joint experience and knowledge. Each product has a lowered floor to allow for a smoother ride and more space. Let’s look at one, the Peugeot e-Traveller.
Below are some of the other impressive features:
LED lights installed on the ramp for better visibility
back and head protection for the wheelchair user
original design and upholstery is maintained after conversion
a swivel seat either in the front or middle row
PSA Group approval for the safety of the vehicles
Again, this product doesn’t yet bring wheelchair users as much independence and freedom as we hope electric WAVs will one day. But it shows thought-leaders are working on these challenges. This is an undeniably good sign for the future of accessibility.
This company does not produce EVs. A UK-based charity, Motability enables people with disabilities to lease new cars. They can do this through their disability benefits. The scheme even allows drivers to choose from a range of different electric cars now too.
Why is this a company people need to know about?
the cost of a home charge point is covered
you receive a new electric car every three years
leasing is more affordable and less-commitment
the WAV Grant Programme provides financial assistance for a car or adaptations
home delivery of any adapted vehicle that isn’t a car
Supporting and spreading awareness about companies like these are key. Motability, for instance, works with car manufacturers, stakeholders, and the government. They have the expertise to send influential figures in the right direction and make effective decisions.
If these strategies continue and develop, will EVs become accessible? Only time will tell. The shift is inevitable. One day, they might be the only transportation we know. But before they become a global standard, everyone should get to enjoy their benefits and success.
Working towards customisable and adaptable designs is the best way forward. The points above share the values of collaboration, innovation, and human-first approaches. When we place importance on these things, the chance of reaching our goals increases tenfold.