In a Super Bowl commercial that aired earlier this year, GM declared that its electric vehicles were designed for everyone. The ad closed with the image of a one-armed surfer to emphasize its point. But sometime later, that surfer was replaced by an able-bodied counterpart, with no explanation for the switch. As a wheelchair user, I was left wondering whether people like me are being left out of the EV revolution?
There’s no doubt that EVs are going to be one of the pillars of our future, yet there are currently none on the market for the disabled. Retrofitting these vehicles with ramps seems close to impossible due to the architecture. And the only EV on the horizon that could be made accessible isn’t coming until 2023 — and even then, it’s unclear that it will be marketed toward disabled drivers.
I don’t drive because treatment for a brain tumor caused swelling that impacted my cranial nerves, corrupting my balance, motor skills, and causing my eyes to bounce. I did own a Dodge minivan with a converted ramp so that others could transport me in my electric wheelchair when I had to travel long distances or on tough terrain. For someone with an active life, these vans are a necessity. I was fortunate in that I had the financial support to purchase one, but for many disabled people who live off Social Security income or low-wage jobs, this option is prohibitive. And the price tag will only go up with new technology.
But price is not the problem at this juncture. Most electric vehicles use a so-called “skateboard architecture,” which includes the battery pack, the electric drivetrain, and the electrical architecture that rests under the floor of the vehicle. This makes an EV harder to get into for those with physical disabilities — if only by a minimal amount — because the floor is placed above the battery pack. For disabled drivers, an untapped consumer base of 61 million with nearly $500 million of disposable income, that extra inch or two could be the reason for not getting a license or owning a car.
Kelly Dawson, a disability advocate and writer based in Los Angeles, has limited mobility due to cerebral palsy that mostly affects her legs. She can’t bend down to fill her tires with air because she can’t crouch and balance at the same time. But even as an ambulatory driver, she is worried about the challenges EVs might present her.
“I do feel that I might have a harder time getting into the driver’s seat if the battery raises the height of the floor,” she said. “With my current fuel-powered car, I can step or slide in, but an EV might be a tighter (potentially unsafe) squeeze.”
Dawson points out that “when cars were first introduced to the public at the beginning of the 20th century, disabled people were in no way a part of public life — they were actively excluded from it. The main difference with this chapter of automotive innovation is that it’s coming 30 years after the passage of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act].”
Where this barrier for the disabled comes into focus is in the potential conversion of the vehicle. Dropping the floor of a gas-powered vehicle 10–14 inches would typically cost $25,000–35,000 and can be partially paid for with help from the state government or Department of Veterans Affairs. Roughly 20,000 of these conversions are done every year, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse. However, vehicle conversion companies like MobilityWorks and Braunability, while being able to add handbrake equipment, can’t convert electric vehicles to have a ramp due to the battery’s position.
Abuelsamid said that Braunability does offer a conversion for the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid, which has drop-down ramp access through the rear, but there are no fully electric minivans like that on the market today. Some larger electric vans will appear later this year in the Ford E-Transit and Brightdrop EV600 from GM, but those are prioritized for commercial fleets. The first real electric minivan expected to arrive is the VW ID Buzz in 2023.
Kevin Frayne worked for 34 years at GM before joining Braunability as its quasi-futurist. He recently spoke on behalf of the US Access Board at the Department of Transportation’s forum on equity. And he works closely with companies to consult on designs. He said this task will be a difficult one. “It’s not insurmountable, but companies have to start working with us now,” Frayne said.
“In this case, everything has to do with geometry and triangles,” he said. Frayne has to think about things like roof height because the ADA requires door openings to be 56 inches tall, which makes it a problematic crunch when the floor is raised. If he has two inches to fit an ultra-thin ramp between the floor and the battery, he has to devise a blueprint for the ADA-mandated slope ratio of one inch of rise for every four inches of ramp — though Frayne and others think it should be 1:6. And that doesn’t even take into account automated tie-down systems to secure a wheelchair once inside a vehicle.
But conversions are not the only potential barriers for the disabled community. A four-year study by Zap-Map and Motability in the UK found that one-third of drivers with disabilities had difficulty finding a charge station they could use. The survey only included 2,200 people, and 176 of those considered themselves disabled, but that might have something to do with EV ownership among the disabled being so low due to income and access.
According to that survey, one reason for inaccessibility at charging stations is the heavy weight of charging cables. Like cellphone and laptop batteries, high-power charging generates a lot of heat in the cable, which is why they are typically insulated and liquid-cooled. This makes them heavier and harder to maneuver. Adding to the difficulty, the charging connectors need to be precisely aligned in order to slide in.
Other issues include the force required to connect the cables to the EV, the lack of curb-cuts to access the charging station, and parking spaces bunched too closely together. Hopefully, as electric vehicles become cheaper and more popular, charging station operators will abandon the current side-by-side setup to support disabled drivers as well as trucks, buses, and vehicles pulling trailers.
In 2014, the Department of Energy released a report with measurements and images depicting a layout for charging stations. While it would be easy to install charging stations in old or unused parking spaces, by law, every lot must have four accessible spaces, and 1 in 6 must be van accessible. As EV expert Dan Caesar from Fully Charged says, “It seems that disabled drivers and passengers are, at the moment, something of an afterthought for the nascent electric vehicle/charging sector.”
I asked Henry Claypool, technology policy consultant for the American Association of People with Disabilities, about the obstacle of EV batteries in the floor of the vehicle. He was optimistic, recalling how in 2019, Volkswagen convened a meeting with a range of stakeholder groups to discuss building a purpose-built wheelchair-accessible vehicle as part of the company’s Inclusive Mobility initiative.
“At the end of this meeting, a few VW engineers came down to the parking garage to look at my aftermarket modified van,” Claypool told The Verge. “They observed the kneeling and ramp system and didn’t seem troubled by creating something like an electric vehicle with a battery in the floor. They seemed really committed.”
Claypool said Toyota is another company that is really advanced in accessibility. “It will be exciting to see them unveil an accessible AV at the Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan,” he said. “And the thing is, when one OEM successfully does this, everyone’s going to follow.”
What remains frustrating, though, is how disabled people are being used to sell products while being left out of the engineering decisions. The disabled community doesn’t want to drive gas-burning cars while everyone else zips around in zero-emission vehicles. Automakers shouldn’t put off the disabled community’s concerns because if we’re not included on a foundational level, it’s going to be more complex and expensive for everyone going forward.
“Disabled people are arguably the most innovative cohort of Americans,” says Dawson. “We shouldn’t just be behind the wheel of electric cars, we should also be calling the shots on how to build them.”