09/17/2013 12:07 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

Purpose-Built Accessible Vehicles Re-Introduced to Canadian Marketplace

Earlier this summer, a wave of anxiety spread across the community of people with disabilities and their caregivers. VPG Autos, the creator of the MV-1, the world's first vehicle designed and built to standards for wheelchair accessibility, reported it ceased operations.

The MV-1 debuted in Canada at the Canadian International Autos Show in Toronto on February, 2012 and quickly became the buzz of the show. Subsequently, that buzz grew among an ever-expanding community of people with disabilities, caregivers, and transit officials with local municipalities. Initial sales were brisk, capturing approximately 20 percent of the market within the first year.

In the spring of 2013 MV-1's American parent company, VPG Autos, filed for Chapter 11 and production stopped. Warranty and service for cars purchased in Canada were still being respected but no new cars were being produced or shipped while the organization underwent financial restructuring.

As part of those dealings, AM General, the original assembler of the MV-1, has now secured ownership of VPG's assets and as of September 9th, 2013 took over MV-1 sales, operations and production. AM General will assemble the MV-1 at its world-class commercial assembly plant in Mishawaka, Indiana, which is fully tooled for the MV-1 and ready to resume production. As announced in a press release issued by MV-1 Canada this week, the highly sought-after SUV-like vehicle will soon be available again in Canada.

Mobility Further Hampered By Available Options

Before the MV-1, people with disabilities and their caregivers who needed an accessible vehicle were forced to retrofit a mini- or full-sized van. However, conversions are often fraught with issues because of the disruption in the front-to-back mechanical systems, which void the manufacturer's warranty. Often the floor is removed on mini-van conversions to allow for a ramp to be closer to the ground and to accommodate the extra interior height required to allow someone in a wheel chair to enter and manoeuvre.

According to Nick Grande, CEO of MV-1 Canada, "The MV-1 is the only accessible vehicle that meets or exceeds the stringent vehicle guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) and the Canadian CSA D-409 safety standards."

The SUV-like vehicle has an easily deployable manual or fully automated ramp built directly above the frame but below the floor. The ramp extends from the side so wheelchair users can enter from the curb and sit in the passenger position. Any size wheelchair or scooter can be accommodated through a large side entryway that is extra wide and high. The large cabin makes it easy to manoeuvre inside the MV-1 and there is enough room for a wheelchair passenger to sit up front next to the driver, as well space for another wheelchair in the second row.

A Large Void In The Market

According to a 2000-2001 Statistics Canada survey, about 155,000 Canadians living in private households needed a wheelchair to get around, whether due to disease, illness, natural aging, or injury. This figure represents about 0.6 percent of the total household population aged 12 or older. Another 540,000 individuals (2.1 percent) needed other mobility-support devices such as braces, canes, or crutches, the survey found. These individuals could later become wheelchair-bound.

While in the past these users relied on vehicles like minivans that are modified for accessibility, with the MV-1 they now have the less-expensive, safer, and more reliable option of an accessible vehicle purpose-built from the ground up at the factory. The City of Toronto has approved the MV-1 for accessible transportation by taxi, limousine, and para-transit companies; other municipalities are quickly following suit.

The introduction of a purpose-built accessible vehicle in Canada allows municipalities to have a taxi/transit option that is accessible to everyone, rather than operating a separate system that has not, to date, met the needs of those with disabilities. And municipalities are now mandating - or considering - that new city taxi licenses will only be issued if the applicant owns a purpose-built vehicle. However, some cities are facing opposition to the mandate because it would mean that some existing taxi license holders would have to purchase new purpose-built vehicles.

The cost of converting a min-van for wheelchair users starts at approximately $4,000CAD and can run as high as $30,000CAD, on top of the van's purchase price. The average cost of a purpose-built vehicle can be significantly lower.

The next six to twelve months will see a flurry of activity across Ontario as proponents of the Canadian Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, which dictates that all cities were to have been accessible by January of 2012, continue to lobby local municipalities for better on-demand accessible transit and taxi services.