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Wheels For The Disabled: Automobility.

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning. No, it’s not open your eyes, fart, or have a scratch. You got out of bed. Unassisted. Unaided. Unsupported.

Give that some thought for a moment….sure, there may be some aches, some pains, some popping of joints, but you got out of bed all by yourself. Imagine, then, how that simple and unconscious movement for us must be for those that have no leg movement, no body movement or no control over their limbs. Effectively, the only mode of transport is a wheelchair. But what happens when you need or want to go further? That’s where Automobility steps up.

Automobility is a company, like many others, that offers transportation options for those that need that support. Unlike any others, Automobility design, engineer and build in house to a standard that surpasses all of the requisite Australian Design Rules (ADR), down to gutting a donor car, removing parts such as the rear suspension and installing bespoke items.van

The company is based in Montrose, just over thirty kilometres east of Melbourne, Victoria’s capital city. Founded in the mid noughties, the business is now a fully fledged entrant into the disabled services area, with a full sized workshop in order to modify the cars. In May of 2015, Automobility unveiled their new creation, utilising the 2016 Kia Carnival as the starting model.Automobility Kia Carnival

Don’t worry, carers aren’t forgotten; the design ethos allows flexible seating options, from three to six passengers, allowing the person in question to feel secure in the knowledge their family and/or carers are along for the ride. The design parameters also factor in a ‘char’s width; from 540 mm up to 700 mm in width, with anchor points to ensure no unnecessary movement.

There’s also options for the disable person to be the driver; a ramp at the rear lowers and the person drives themselves into the vehicle, with an access point built in behind the steering wheel, allowing the person to lock themselves into place and operate the vehicle much in the manner an able bodied person would. This provides extra freedom and mobility.Automobility Proton Exora

Automobility provides their “Docking Station”, allowing parking of manual or power operated ‘chairs. The deisgn allows for movement of the unit to suit the ‘chair’s design, with fore and aft adjustment of up to 30 mm. There’s different heights as well, from 45 mm to 90 mm. Backing that up is flexibility in the design; this allows changes to the front, centre, rear seats or a combination of all three, depending on the wishes of the client.

How did Automobility come into being? Owner, Jeff Watters, explains:
Having been working as an Automotive Engineering consultant since 1989, I was retained in the late 1990’s by a company who was entering the wheelchair access vehicle manufacturing market.The design brief I was given included;

o Ride comfort for the wheelchair user similar to the OE vehicle

o Good visibility for the wheelchair user

o Flat floor for where the wheelchair user is transported

o Adequate aperture for entry of the wheelchair.

My philosophy was to start with a clean sheet of paper which resulted in an “easy fix” for the aperture and flat floor aspects of the design brief. However, the flat floor aspects created significant design difficulties in relation to the rear suspension. My solution to this was the adaption of an age old suspension design called trailing arms – a principle never applied to wheelchair access vehicles anywhere in the world at that time.Automobility Kia Carnival secure mounting

Luckily, in one way, for Jeff, that company went into bankruptcy, and with Jeff looking to move from the role he was in into manufacturing, some dollars were found and the company was bought, spawning Automobility in February, 2001. Jeff kept on board some of the employees of the previous business, operating out of his home’s garage before sourcing premises in Croydon, Victoria.

To say the early days were easy is to say Mt Everest is made of green alphabet soup; Jeff had to supplement the income of Automobility by continuing his consultancy business but perseverance paid off and word, like Old Regret, got around. As Jeff says:

· Automobility was the ONLY company able to comply with the Australian Standards for wheelchair access vehicles in relation to internal clearance for wheelchair access vehicles

· Automobility designed the first correctly positioned lap-sash seat belt assembly wheelchair bound occupants

· Automobility and myself hold Australian and USA patents on our unique independent rear suspension and wheelchair occupant lap-sash seat belt.

· Realising that our clients’ needs only started when they got their Automobility vehicle, we established a National repair and service network to ensure that our client’s vehicles could be maintained Australia wide – including the introduction of a 24 hour emergency contact telephone number to be there “24/7” for our clients.

· As the number of Automobility vehicles in the community continues to grow, we realised that we needed even more service and repair agents. After a passing comment from my wife, I entered negotiations with Pedders Suspension and now Automobility and Pedders Suspension have formally partnered – providing the Automobility service and repair network with an additional 120 agents across Australia – the ONLY time such a partnering has occurred worldwide.

· We’ve now completed the world first conversion of the latest Kia Carnival YP for wheelchair access.

· Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, with competitors now offering very similar variations of our conversions as “their own” designs.

Where Automobility leads is in its forward thinking: previous design parameters in cars had doors that were smaller than the wheelchairs, necessitating some serious engineering, along with rear door vehicles having a hump where the rear drivetrain was. Plus, the rear suspension had extra travel to accommodate the weight of the ‘chair and occupant, leading to a bouncy and uncomfortable ride. Jeff’s original design brief covered off providing similar ride comfort to the donor vehicle, better visibility for the ‘chair’s occupant, flat floor access and more.Automobility Kia Carnival flat floor

A major hurdle was the flat floor aspect; Jeff overcame this by resorting to a tried and true design, trailing arms. This allows Automobility to section and rebuild the rear of donor vehicles such as Kia’s award winning Carnival. This provides the flatter access require, allows more flexibility for other occupants and ups the safety factor in regards to mounting the ‘chair and occupant more securely.

From this, Jeff says it’s increased the pleasure level in dealing with clients and hearing the reaction from them, plus seeing the smiles on their faces as well. Along with further development and refinement of their systems, Automobility’s partnering with Pedders ensures Australia wide backup and support.

Finally, there’s the growth of Automobility: from a single vehicle per month, with four employees crammed into a 500 square metre factory, there’s 2.5 square kilometres of floor space, 24 employees and over ten vehicles per month rolling out of the doors and an inventory of vehicles ready for almost immediate delivery. Build time? Compressed from over 200 hours to under 100.

Add in the support from Kia Australia (plus Proton and VW) and Europcar providing their clients Automobility built vehicles, it’s fair to say that there’s wheels for the disabled of higher quality and far better safety than ever before.

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