My Dream Car
Robert P. Bennett

I loved my old clunker, a 1988 Pontiac Grand Am with 70,000 miles on it, but it was getting to be that time when nostalgia gives way to necessity and I had to bite the bullet and shop for a new car. It wasnít a question of how many miles I had put on the car. Those were relatively few. It was more a question of the number of times I had to bring the car to the shop. I had replaced most of the major systems in the past year. Each time the car needed a repair I was left without wheels, except for those on my wheelchair. Living in a suburb with no public transportation, this was intolerable. The problem was finding the right car, and a means to test it.

Never a lay-up, the great American rite of buying a new car is all the more complicated because so much is at stake now. In case you've been out of the game a while, brace yourself for sticker shock. The average price of a new car has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. Everybody and his brother knows we've been crucified at the pump for nearly a year with out of sight gas prices, so top mileage is also a factor, and if you've spent any time cooling your heels in a garage waiting room you know that repair histories are also a key factor. But, for the 54 million people with disabilities in the United States, the considerations don't end there. How readable are the dashboard gauges? How accessible are the controls? Is the trunk big enough for a wheelchair? Accessibility is no accessory. It's a priority in the decision-making process.

Car showrooms are the theaters in which science fiction and better traction coincide. While we don't have cars that streak through the air we do have vehicles that do amazing things, even by the standards of those old movies. Many of the most dramatic innovations have been developed to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities, who figure in the focus groups and consumer research that augurs design change.

Automobile manufacturers spend billions of dollars in feverish competition to get you, the driver, into their car seat. Consumer research subjects of every age and ability level are brought together to test the latest inventions years before they appear on the showroom floor. Engineers tweak every ounce of fuel efficiency they can out of the engines. Designers and ergonomic experts take magnifying glasses to every inch of the passenger compartments so they can provide the greatest degree of comfort to you, the consumer.

For the 2001 model year the mantras are electronics and safety. The manufacturers know that electronic gadgets a la James Bond help keep the driver's eyes where they should be, on the road. They also know that an unfortunately high percentage of people with disabilities became disabled due to automobile accidents of one sort or another. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, there were a whopping 3,192,000 people injured on the road in 1998. So, the race this year has been focused on two issues, creating the means to keep a driver's attention on the job of driving, and creating systems that will minimize injury and disability during those seemingly unavoidable accidents.

How do you keep the driver's eyes on the road when there are so many gadgets and controls that demand attention? The answer is simple. You make as many of them automatic as you can.

"At Volkswagen," says Pubic Relations Manager, Tony Fouladpour, "the driver will always be able to pay as much attention to driving as possible with little need to take his eyes off the road." Fouladpour says that 2001 has become the year for electronics. "This year we've added a feature which darkens the rearview mirror automatically so you don't get bright lights in your eyes at night. Furthermore, the Passat and Jetta, our middle range cars, have a rain sensor so the wipers go on automatically at a certain speed depending on the severity of the rain. That tends to keep your keep your hands on the wheel. We've also got an automatic climate control that you set once and never touch again. Other things like one-touch windows will be making their way to all our cars soon."

When primary system controls can't be made automatic you place those controls in logical, familiar and easy to reach places. That's the message at Saturn, says Product Publicity Manager, Tom Wilkinson. "We try to put controls in places that are intuitive. All the controls for the climate control and the radio are close enough to the driver's seat that you can access them without having to lean forward. We put controls that are used frequently like the headlights and the wipers on stalks rather than on the dash for two reasons. First, to make them easier to find and use. Second, Saturn's primary competitors are the high volume Japanese imports. Those companies generally like to put controls on stalks. So if you're trying to appeal to Honda customers for instance they feel accustomed to where our controls are." It's no surprise that Saturn ranks number one in our annual list of the Top 10 cars for drivers with disabilities. With the first three-door coupe in the world, Saturn is a winner for wheelchair users.

"At Ford," says Product News Manager Kathleen Hamilton, "the designers are looking for what they call intuitive motion, putting controls where the driver expects them so he doesn't have to take his eyes off the road. For example, most of our window controls are still on the doors since most people expect them there."

Often familiarization goes hand in hand with visual recognition and what could be more familiar or visually recognizable than the human body? At Volvo this realization has made the dashboard of thousands of vehicles easier to navigate.

"The climate control system on all our products has a little icon with a person sitting. You push the body part to get the heat or a/c to go where you want it to," says Dan Johnston, Public Relations Manager at Volvo. "We started that in 1998 with our S80 and it's since trickled down into all our vehicles."

General Motors' motto has always been 'engineering to accommodate'. Nowhere is that motto of more value than in GM's Paragon Project, now in its fifth year. Manager Paul Ulrich, a wheelchair user, says the Project handles accessibility issues for people with disabilities and those individuals who are 50+. Their goal is to lower the effort needed to operate primary and secondary systems in the car. "People don't particularly care for small buttons or sliders. Our climate controls are three knobs (speed, temperature and mode) as opposed to small buttons or sliders. Once you understand the function of each knob you can adjust those knobs without having to lift your shoulder from the seat. The ignition switch is on the instrument panel not the steering column thanks to the involvement of one of our team who is post polio with a lot of upper body involvement. He found that he could only operate the ignition switch effectively with it placed on the panel." Of all the vehicle GM produces the Chevrolet Impala, Caddilac Seville and Oldsmodible Aurora are the cars which have benefitted the most from Paragon input. On all of them the guages and icons are large and easy to read. The Impala and Aurora offer a serpentine shifter, which doesnít require pushing a button in order to change gears.

After ease of use of the controls the second most important factor in deciding which car to buy is safety. For the 2001 model year the manufacturers have both extended the use of already existing systems and added new gadgets to keep driver and passengers safe. For over a decade air bags have been an integral part of the driving experience. Over the years there has been a great deal of evolutionary thought put into the placement and deployment methods of these bags. Air bags have become smarter as manufacturers understand more about when and how they are needed. This year the new catch phrase is 'curtain,' A curtain air bag deploys from the headliner and protects the head and neck of both drivers and passengers in the event of a side-impact accident. Most of the manufacturers are coming out with these new air bags as an option.

At Ford the curtain air bag is quickly becoming a different kind of animal than in other vehicles. For 2002 (which is really late 2001) they'll be coming out with a roll-over protection system. These curtain airbags, which started as optional equipment on the 1999 Taurus and Sable, will be on their 2002 Explorers and Mountaineers. "Our airbags will be inflated with cold air rather than the standard hot air. The big deal there is that air bags currently deploy and then shrink back in a blink of an eye. The reason is that after the first impact you don't need it. Our system will stay deployed for six seconds because the typical roll-over is 1.5 seconds."

Another advancement in air bag technology is the multi-stage airbag, available on six vehicles this year (Sebring Sedan and Convertible, Chrysler Voyager and Town&Country, Dodge Stratus and Caravan) According to Kerri McEllwe, Sr. Manager for Large Car Products at Chrysler, these airbag fire at more than one level of power depending on the severity of the crash. "In the past air bags fired at one level of power regardless of the type of collision. Sometimes they caused as much harm as good."

Cellular technology has greatly changed the way that people communicate but it's only recently that this technology has become a part of the automotive industry. With the advent of General Motor's On-Star system (Push the button and a live technician knows where you are within a meter and knows whether the airbag has been deployed. EMS is dispatched if the technician can't contact the driver.) All of the other manufacturers are clamoring to incorporate this safety feature, called telematics, into their product line.

"Our new S60 has it," says Volvo's Johnston. "After the first of the year all of our new cars will have it. What ours does that On-Star doesn't is that if a cell signal can't be recognized it will try to get a signal using a satellite link. 99.9% of the country will be covered by the system."

Some manufacturers are in the process of incorporating features into their telematics systems that the others don't have. Mercedes first introduced Tele-aide, in March of 1999," says Jim Resnick, Product and Technology Public Relations Manager. "As of 2001 we've incorporated it into all of our vehicles. If any of the air bags is deployed the system is activated. There's an SOS button on the headliner, which also activates the system. There's a button that connects directly to our client assistance center and another which connects to roadside assistance."

Others are just now starting to bring telematics into their product lines. Ford's Rescue system started in their Lincolns and has not yet trickled down into their other products. Saturn is introducing the technology into their new SUV, and Audi plans to bring it into their line beginning in 2002. On all of these vehicles the telematics will be an option and the pricing has yet to be set.

The final consideration in buying a new car is the overall design. While 'real estate' is often a problem for designers, they always find ways to tweak every inch of available space in the never-ending battle to design the perfect vehicle for every possible driver. For the 2001 model year drivers with disabilities won't find many dramatic changes from previous years. Such changes are usually slow and evolutionary rather than revolutionary. However, there have been some very interesting designs that are guaranteed to make the job of driving easier and more fun.

Chrysler has been an innovator of concept vehicles for many years. Their PT Cruiser is no exception. "The passenger seat is very versatile," says McEllwe. "It has 3 different positions and can be folded down to make into a table top. The back seats also are flexible. They can be folded down flat, folded against the front seats to give more cargo space, or they can be completely removed. The PT Cruiser came into being because we wanted something as a segment buster. Its wheelbase is the same size as a compact car but its interior functionality is that of a mid-sized car. For people with disabilities the PT Cruiser offers convenience. Wheelchair users who constantly struggle to get their chairs into and out of their vehicles will be pleased by the easy pass-over to the back seat that is provided when the front passenger seat it folded down flat. And, because the rear seat can be removed like in a minivan, carge space for mobility aides is greatly increased. PT Cruiser has no competitors."

Since its inception in 1990 Saturn has always looked at user friendliness. They've always looked for ways to make the job of driving easier. This commitment brought about, in 1999, the addition of a third door to their coupe (the SC line). This third door, located on the driverís side, opens in the opposite direction from the driver's door and was designed to make access to the back seat easier. "The idea for the third door came because we had a retailer with an 8 year old son who was tired of having to move the front seat out of the way so that the boy could climb into the back seat, says Saturn's Wilkinson. Because there is no pillar between the two doors, The third door also makes pulling a wheelchair in and out of the car much easier than in the standard two-door couple.

Volvo has added whiplash protection features to all of their front seats. The design mitigates the force that comes in from the rear. "The seat folds back about an inch and a half and absorbs energy so that your body isn't thrown forward as hard," says Johnston.

The 2001 Volkswagons have high intensity (gas discharge) headlights that improve visibility by 70%. They've introduced one-handed, adjustable seat belts. We have a ratchet system on our seats to adjust the height. There are grab handles on the inside of the trunk. "Volkswagon has the most thoughtfully designed cars in the world, to make everyone's life easier," says Fouladpour.

Jennifer Garber, Audi's spokeswoman, says that not much has changed for the 2001 model year but the few changes that have occurred are exciting. "Our headrests have been made larger to make taller passengers comfortable. We've also added seat memory, which we've had for the driver's side. You hit a button and it remembers where you like your seat. That's available on the A6."

"Beginning with the Seville we've added a second intermediate door stop so that the door can be stopped in two places rather than one before it's opened completely, says GM's Ulrich. "Older folks use the door as a support mechanism when they are getting in and out. This allows them to position the door in a more appropriate place to reach."

The future of the automotive industry looks very bright for every kind of driver, from young to old, able-bodied to disabled. We're headed toward an age when our cars will become more like the machines envisioned by science fiction writers. All the automobile manufacturers see electronics as the next big boon in the development of the perfect vehicle. What started with intelligent air bags and cruise controls will progress toward bumpers with sensors to detect near-by objects and night vision sensors. And, of course, creature comforts won't be ignored, with the promise of features such as height adjustable pedals so drivers can sit in a more natural position and steering wheels that can be adjusted to suit the strength of the individual driver. Driving in the future will not be the chore that most people think it is now. It will be a pleasure.

I bought the 2001 Saturn SC-2. For me the choice was clear. The third door makes getting my chair loaded and unladed a snap. And, while I loved my Grand Am, I hated having to constantly lean forward to adjust the controls (which were on the dashboard). Saturnís controls, being on stalks, meant I didnít have to lean forward or fumble for where a control was while I was driving. That one feature means a great deal when youíve already got a disability and want to avoid an accident that could make your condition worse. The final consideration was that my dealer allowed me to work out a deal with a local adaptive equipment outfitter so that I could borrow a set of removable hand controls to test drive the car. No other dealer would allow me to do that.

Going Home Now!

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