By Alan Troop, New Mobility, February 2012
At first glance the new MV-1 from the Vehicle Production Group looks like something designed and built by committee in the former Soviet Union. Nearly as large as a minivan and basically a box on wheels, its determinedly utilitarian lines possess the quirky, ugly-duckling charm of a London cab. Which makes sense for a vehicle that was originally previewed in 2007 as the Standard Taxi. That initial design was squared off and clunky, kind of like a giant Lego car. But the Standard wasn’t designed to win any beauty contests. It was purpose-built to be the best taxi possible.
Wide doors, a low step, flat floor and a deployable wheelchair ramp made it easy to get in and out of and — to VPG’s credit — universally accessible. Rugged construction and reliable running gear made it dependable. A large trunk provided for ample storage. And its roomy interior had enough space to seat a driver plus three adults (four with an optional jump seat) and a wheelchair rider — facing forward in the shotgun position — next to the driver.
As a C6 quad who has suffered the inconveniences, delays, and expense of getting around at most travel destinations, the thought of fleets of wheelchair accessible taxis roaming the streets of America makes me want to shout hallelujah. Just imagine being able to hail a taxi, any taxi, and get in — like everybody else.
Manufacturing and selling taxicabs that can deliver universal access like that is a daunting goal. But Ford’s discontinuance of its Crown Victoria, a boat of a car and the favored vehicle of most cab companies, made room for a new player in the market — lots of room. VPG could have concentrated on that market alone, but as venture capitalist Fred Drasner, the chairman and founder of the company, is fond of saying, "We are not a one-note car company."
Why the inclusion of wheelchair accessibility in its plans? Dave Schembri, VPG's CEO, who knows all-too-well how vital accessible transportation can be from his own wheelchair-using sister's experiences, says, "There was a need for an accessible vehicle and there's a void in the market."
Adds Drasner, "We decided we can do well by doing good."
Buoniconti Gets Number One
From the beginning, VPG's goal was to serve a number of markets, including the taxicab, paratransit and commercial fleet industries, as well as the personal mobility market. It didn't hurt that Drasner knew Marc Buoniconti from Miami Project fundraisers, too.
Buoniconti, who heads up the Project as well as its fundraising arm, the Buoniconti Fund, and who has helped raise over $300 million for spinal cord research since the football accident that left him a C3-4 quad 25 years ago, became an early advisor and supporter. "I'm more excited about this vehicle and more excited for what this means for the disabled community than I've been about anything since I've been in this wheelchair," he says [see NM’s November News, "Marc Buoniconti and the MV-1," which reports on Buoniconti's becoming the proud owner of the first MV-1 to roll off the production line].
His enthusiasm is perfectly understandable. After all, no matter how good a conversion is, no matter how thrilling its performance or styling may be, the glaring fact is, when you buy one you’re basically paying for two expensive systems — the original vehicle and the costly conversion that makes it accessible. Building an accessible vehicle from the wheels up offers the promise of a far more affordable alternative and one that could be built right, with no compromises.
The first time I caught sight of an MV-1 ad, it made me stop and pay attention. I was willing to overlook the MV-1's awkward styling and the ad’s borderline patronizing copy as long as the thing delivered on its promises of freedom, mobility and independence for everyone. But when I rushed to my computer and went to VPG’s website, I discovered that — as currently built and set up — no wheelchair-using crip could drive or operate it independently.
As a C6 quad used to driving from his chair, I couldn't imagine a manufacturer targeting wheelers and then ignoring all the crips who either transferred to the driver’s seat or drove from their own chairs, especially after VPG’s professions of universality.
Are there any plans to come out with a more accessible model in the future — one that would accommodate wheelchair drivers? Both Fred Drasner and David Schembri reassured me that VPG was already studying ways to make the MV-1 usable for wheelchair drivers, possibly as early as within the next year or two.
Thanks to VPG’s website’s dealer listing — now up to over 50 — I found that Vera Motors in South Florida, a short drive from my home, was a dealer. I called and arranged to meet with John Perry, Vera's MV-1 specialist. Since Vera’s also a Cadillac dealership, when I got there, I found the handicap parking spot surrounded by a sea of luxury vehicles. Unfortunately, I also found the only accessible ramp to the show room blocked by a service vehicle. I called Perry on my cell and left word that I’d be out in the lot. Then I got out and started rolling along, looking for the only vehicle on the lot that wasn’t festooned in chrome.
Rounding a corner, I spotted a black MV-1 nestled between a burgundy Escalade and a silver CTS coupe. The MV-1 was definitely the Plain Jane of the bunch. Its dull faux-aluminum wheel covers made it look as ill-shod as Cinderella before the ball and, while its paint job glistened every bit as much as the others, it lacked all their other shiny accoutrements. For customers who prefer something more varied than Jet Black, VPG offers the MV-1 in four other colors: Sterling Silver, Cherry Red, Artic White and Midnight Blue.
Still, up front and close, the MV-1’s looks weren’t as off-putting as I thought they'd be. True, it was easily as bulky as the Escalade next to it. But it didn’t look as large as I expected. As a matter of fact, if the thing could be adapted the way I'd like it, I could see where it might grow on me.
Testing the MV-1
Since most of the MV-1's controls are set up for walkies only, John Perry unlatched the rear passenger door and opened it. It swung out to a 90-degree angle, creating a spacious opening of 36 by 56 inches for a wheelchair user to roll through — if the wheeler can make it up the MV-1's ramp. In my case, I got to choose pushing up either one of two ramps.
While the very basic SE model, which costs $39,950, comes with a manually operated short 52.5-inch ramp, this model, the DE, had both a short and a long power ramp — an upgrade that brought its sticker price to $43,294. John pressed a switch mounted on the door’s interior panel and deployed the short ramp. Even before it hit the ground, I started shaking my head. It was only about 4 inches shorter than my Toyota Entervan’s ramp, but since the MV-1 can't kneel and the in-floor ramp increases the angle of ascent, there was no way I could push up it.
John deployed the longer ramp next. At 87 inches, or 7.25 feet, the ramp's way too long for most parking spots. But at least the angle looked doable. However, my wheelie bars scraped ground as soon as I started up. I soldiered on, stopping a few feet from the top when my front casters started to rise with each push. I'm sure a para or a stronger quad — and certainly anyone in a power chair — could handle it, but I wimped out and asked for help.
Once inside, there was plenty of rolling room. It was a cinch making the hard right turn, without any extra maneuvering, into the shotgun position next to the driver's seat. Q-Straint wheelchair restraint systems, enough to accommodate two chairs, were already installed and ready to go. Unfortunately, Perry, Vera's MV-1 specialist, wasn't. After a bit of huffing and puffing, he admitted that he hadn’t yet been briefed on how to use the restraints.
No big deal. I asked about the driver’s seat, whether someone could transfer into it. No. The seat was adjustable, but it neither swiveled nor came back far enough and, when John pointed to the raised floor around the seat, I could see there was no way a wheelchair can nestle right next to the seat. Someone with strong transfer skills might make it across the gap, and hand controls could be installed, but there was still no way anyone in a chair could operate the ramp or close the door without help.
The interior of the MV-1 had the same Spartan, minimalist effect as its exterior. So much so that my green Quickie Extender wheelchair was the most colorful thing inside it. Seats were all covered with a drab gray leatherette fabric and flooring was the same black anti-slip surface as used on the ramps. Equipment included power windows, locks, doors and mirrors, and an air-conditioning system capable of keeping South Florida’s noonday heat at bay. An optional cruise control and AM/FM radio with CD player and MP3 player made for pleasant cruising.
The MV-1's 36.4-cubic-foot trunk was more than roomy enough to easily accommodate the shower chair, all the luggage and supplies and other goodies that my wife and I usually over-pack for a long road trip — and then some. But there was no space set aside for a spare tire. Rather than provide one, VPG points to the free, three-year, 36,000-mile guaranteed road assistance plan that comes with the vehicle.
MV-1: Universal Taxi of the Future?
Clearly, for those who want to drive independently, the MV-1 isn't the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it does have plenty going for it. Made in America at the former Hummer H2 plant in Mishawaka, Ind., it’s built to be solid — with body-on-frame construction, like the big trucks use. It's powered by the same tried-and-true 248-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 engine and transmission as Ford uses in its famed F-150 pickups. Even its ramps are tough, capable of bearing a 1,200-pound load. And VPG supports the vehicle with a 75,000-mile warranty, serviced and maintained by technicians at each MV-1 dealership — which eliminates the fingerpointing between dealerships and converters so many of us have experienced.
A 24-gallon gas tank gives the MV-1 a decent range despite the car's ho-hum fuel consumption of 13.5 mpg city, 18 mpg highway. And a compressed natural gas option is available for those willing to pay more and receive government rebates for going green. Offering that option helped VPG qualify for a recent $50-million Department of Energy clean air loan.
While the MV-1 doesn't yet put any wheelers in the driver's seat, it does provide a sensible and economical alternative for the many wheelers who either can't or choose not to drive — and it lets them ride shotgun. The rest of us wheelers, who drive from our chairs or transfer into the driver's seat, will just have to wait to see whether VPG delivers on its promises for us in the future.
In the meantime, the most exciting, immediate potential the vehicle has for us is being a universally accessible taxi in cities around the nation. Even notoriously wheelchair-unfriendly New York City has approved the MV-1 for use as an accessible taxi — which at very least gives VPG a toehold on replacing some of NYC’s 232 accessible taxis (less than 2 percent of the city’s fleet). The larger prize, replacing NYC’s other 13,000 taxis, was promised to Nissan’s inaccessible (and made in Mexico) NV200 van, the city’s "Taxi of Tomorrow." City leaders, especially Mayor Bloomberg, have defied the ADA as it pertains to accessibility and taxis for many years.
To address the need for more accessible taxis, the mayor and the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission proposed another antiquated version of a phone-in dispatch service. Then the state legislature got in the act with a bill that would increase the number of accessible taxis, but Governor Cuomo threatened to veto it because the number was insufficient. Pressure from disability advocates, notably United Spinal Association, Disability Rights Advocates and others, and Governor Cuomo, finally prevailed, and a deal was announced Dec. 20 that calls for 6,000 special hail licenses to be issued to livery cabs, 20 percent of which must be accessible. This would be followed by two more rounds of 6,000 livery cabs with 20 percent of them accessible. In addition, 2,000 new yellow cab medallions, all of them accessible, would go on sale.
The ultimate word on the issue, however, came from a federal district court order Dec. 23 that barred the TLC from issuing any permits for taxis that are not accessible, until a workable plan is reached. At press time, specifics were lacking on how the complete ruling would be put into action, but at last it seems certain that New York City will have a sizable percentage of accessible taxis.
Given these late developments, the MV-1 is in a good position to become a major player in NYC’s evolving accessible taxi fleet, but we may be waiting a while to see the final result. Meanwhile I'll be watching for the first MV-1 taxi that might cross my path — either around home here in Florida or wherever I travel.
I can’t wait to try one out.