Driv­ing from a wheel­chair

Azer News - - Impact Journalism Day - By Jana Klí­mová, Mag­daléna Fa­j­tová

Many men have boy­hood dreams of con­struct­ing their own car. The vast ma­jor­ity grow out of the idea, or set­tle for a gokart. But Ladislav Brázdil and his two sons made sure their dreams came true: El­bee Mo­bil­ity, their fam­ily busi­ness in the small town Loštice in the Olo­mouc dis­trict of North Mo­ravia, the Czech Repub­lic, is now man­u­fac­tur­ing its own El­bee cars and is even be­gin­ning to tap into the world mar­ket.

The El­bee is a weird ve­hi­cle. It opens from the front, and you don’t climb in, but ride straight into it with a wheel­chair. It’s an un­ri­valed con­cept that saw the Brázdils and the El­bee voted among the top 100 bright ideas in Cen­tral and East­ern Euro­pean coun­tries at the end of 2015.

El­bee Mo­bil­ity was a spin-off from the busi­ness ZLKL (a Czech ab­bre­vi­a­tion for Loštice Light Con­struc­tion Works), an out­fit that orig­i­nally had noth­ing to do with cars.

Built up by Ladislav Brázdil Se­nior on the ru­ins of agri­cul­tural build­ings that used to be part of a lo­cal col­lec­tive farm, the fam­ily busi­ness to­day has about two hun­dred em­ploy­ees and an an­nual turnover in ex­cess of 350 mil­lion CZK (more than 14 mil­lion US dol­lars).

Ladislav Brázdil Se­nior bought the farm with a busi­ness part­ner when it col­lapsed af­ter the Czech revo­lu­tion. His big break came in 2003 when he de­cided to buy out his co-own­ers’ shares. Then, in­stead of re­con­di­tion­ing the old ma­chin­ery, Brázdil Se­nior in­vested in mod­ern and more re­li­able tech­nolo­gies.

When a de­sign en­gi­neer asked him about an idea he had in mind, Brázdil Se­nior went af­ter his dream of cre­at­ing his own prod­uct: an ur­ban mi­cro-car de­signed specif­i­cally for dis­abled driv­ers.

“This was it,” says Brázdil Se­nior, re­mem­ber­ing that first meet­ing. “It was some­thing unique that we as an en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness could pro­duce in part, and at the same time it sup­ported our own de­vel­op­ment as a man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness.”

The road to as­sem­bling the fi­nal prod­uct was a long one. The de­ci­sion to make a front-open­ing ve­hi­cle meant con­sid­er­ing how to raise both the hood and steer­ing col­umn to al­low wheel­chair users to drive in­side.

This di­rect driver ac­cess to the ve­hi­cle was a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of the whole project. Or­di­nary ve­hi­cles adapted for wheel­chair users sim­ply do not re­solve the prob­lem of what to do with the wheel­chair. If wheel­chair users don’t have enough strength to stow their wheel­chairs them­selves, they need some­one to help them.

A ma­jor ad­van­tage of front-end open­ing is that wheel­chair users can park the car fac­ing the side­walk. If they have rear-end open­ing they can re­verse up to the curb, but for many wheel­chair users, this is a very com­plex op­er­a­tion, es­pe­cially if they have re­stricted neck move­ment. With face-for­ward park­ing, the driver can see where he or she is go­ing and where to re­lease the wheel­chair ramp so as to ride out of the car safely, among pedes­tri­ans on the side­walk, and not onto the road­way.

Ho­molo­ga­tion is the ap­proval process of cer­ti­fy­ing ve­hi­cles as road­wor­thy, and this was es­sen­tial when the El­bee was still in de­vel­op­ment. Of­fi­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tion was granted for the Czech Repub­lic in 2010, for a ve­hi­cle with a two-stroke en­gine ca­pa­ble of a top speed of around 50 miles an hour. Three years later the car was ap­proved for the en­tire Euro­pean Union. The first model went to mar­ket at the end of 2014.

The his­toric first cus­tomer was Fran­tišek Trunda from Brno, who lost both legs be­low the hips years ago, and for whom the car has pro­vided a re­newed sense of free­dom. “It’s changed my life,” he says. “I can now go for a drive out of town or go to see my brother. I don’t have to wait un­til some­one has time to go with me.”

So far, the busi­ness has pro­duced many ve­hi­cles which are now on the roads through­out Europe, namely in France, Italy, Switzer­land and the United King­dom.

One lim­it­ing fac­tor and a risk for the project, specif­i­cally in the Czech mar­ket, is the price of the car. The cur­rent price is 600 thou­sand CZK (al­most 25 thou­sand US dol­lars), and al­though the ef­fec­tive pur­chase price can be cut by two-thirds thanks to var­i­ous sub­si­dies and re­liefs, it is still cheaper for wheel­chair users to mod­ify a nor­mal car, and in­deed many have al­ready drawn on all avail­able sub­si­dies to do this.

The en­tire project has al­ready cost the fam­ily busi­ness 200 mil­lion CZK. But fur­ther in­vestors are lin­ing up who might boost de­vel­op­ment, per­haps by in­tro­duc­ing se­rial pro­duc­tion or joy­stick con­trol.

“We’re mak­ing some­thing that’s re­ally emo­tive,” says Ladislav Brázdil Ju­nior, “and this in­spires us to con­tinue the project. We’ve had re­ac­tions from peo­ple say­ing that thanks to the El­bee they’re now learn­ing to drive and they are re­gain­ing strength and abil­ity. In our small way we’re restor­ing their lives.”

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