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Electric `Freedom Car' lets disabled take to the roads

Unless you use a wheelchair or you're close to someone who does, you probably don't think very often about mobility issues.

However, for a person in a wheelchair, even short trips like going to the grocery store or hairdressers, or keeping a doctor's appointment, can be a daunting ordeal."In many cases," says Lou Finch, a Fruitland, Md., entrepreneur, "the solution may have meant retrofitting a van so that it's wheelchair accessible."

However, retrofitting could add $10,000 or more to the cost of the van. In addition, in Finch's experience, 70 percent of those with spinal cord injuries also have impaired upper body strength. For them, wheeling their chair up the ramp to the door of a retrofitted van is either difficult or impossible.

In some cases, public transportation is an answer. Finch knows that many areas provide special vans that accommodate people in wheel chairs. However, if there is such a service, it will not be available as frequently as regular transportation. A person may have to wait for days to get the simplest task done.

So Finch asked himself if there might be a better way to meet the needs of people confined to wheel chairs. Three years ago he heard about a Swedish design for an inexpensive electric car designed so a person in a wheelchair could enter it and then operate it without assistance.

Its top speed would be only 30 mph, so it would not work on the highway. But Finch reasoned that it could satisfy most of an individual's day to day mobility needs.

As he studied the car's design, Finch realized that several aspects made it attractive for people in wheelchairs. The fact that it was electric meant that the individual who owned it would not have to deal with trying to pump gas from a wheelchair.

Instead, he or she would charge the batteries of the car by simply plugging an extension cord into a normal A/C outlet, using regular household current. The batteries can recharge overnight.

The aspect of the design that intrigued him most came about because the car had to be light in weight. To achieve its range of roughly 40 miles, the electric car had to weigh less than 1,000 pounds. (An average car weighs around 3,500 to 4,500 pounds.) Because this car weighs so little, it becomes practical to make it "kneel."

"With the push of a button," Finch explains, "a hydraulic system developed by my partner, J. Andrew Phillips, will lower the chassis to ground level. A door in the rear of the car swings open, and the individual can simply roll his or her chair into the car."

The design is so automatic that when the individual presses another button, the door swings shut and the chassis hydraulically rises to its normal height six inches off the pavement. "We've named it the Freedom Car," says Finch, "because it provides wheelchair users with unassisted, self-sufficient, affordable, street safe, environmentally protected transportation within cities and local communities."

Finch and his partner have operational prototypes available now. They plan to produce 350 of the Freedom Cars in 1998 at a cost of less than $10,000 each. He hopes to manufacture 3,000 a year in future years.

For more information, contact Finch at: (410) 543 1940 or write to him at Electric Car Company, 319 South Division Street, Fruitland, MD 21826. His web page, which includes pictures of Freedom, is: http://www.elecar.com.