Wheelchair-accessible minivan debuts in Chicago
Autonomous driving has been heralded as a boon for people who face various challenges to driving themselves. But at this year’s Chicago show, Winamac, Indiana-based mobility-solutions provider BraunAbility arrived to remind us that it can modify vehicles to permit paraplegic and even quadriplegic customers to drive themselves. Last year they showed off a wheelchair-accessible Ford Explorer, but this year its bread-and-butter minivan product made its debut: The BraunAbility Chrysler Pacifica.
While the Explorer is attractive to adventurous customers looking to get off the beaten path, minivans — especially large ones like the Pacifica — better suit the needs of most wheelchair-bound drivers. (BraunAbility has been working with Chrysler for over 45 years.) The switch from a leaf-sprung solid axle on the outgoing Chrysler minivans to the Pacifica’s independent setup, in conjunction with the Pacifica’s compact front powertrain cradle presented the BraunAbility engineers with about the longest span of open floor for lowering of any vehicle they work with, resulting in the roomiest accessible vehicle in the industry. The new rear suspension setup also made it easier to work out a kneeling solution to further reduce the steepness of the ramp used to enter the van: The spring mount on the right rear coil spring has a linear actuator device that lowers that one corner enough to drop the whole side ramp area several inches. When raised, the ground clearance remains a nearly stock 5-6 inches.
Along with the floor going down, the body goes up a bit relative to the powertrain and suspension (note all the air over the tires) using structural spacer. Other major modifications to the Pacifica include extending rearward the upper and lower tracks that guide the front of the passenger-side sliding door, and modifying the door mount that guides the rear of the door along the visible track under the side window so that the door can continue moving about 4 inches farther back than stock, allowing it to completely clear the standard door opening to provide the widest door opening and side-entry ramp in the industry. The two-piece fold-out ramp can support 1,000 pounds (454 kg). The center console is obviously deleted, and its various 12-volt and USB plugs relocated to the lower dash. Obviously the center seats are completely removed, and the well where the third row would stow is also repurposed, but that seat retains its power reclining feature at least. A fold-down footrest is provided for passengers riding in that seat. The front seats are on rollers for ease of transitioning between able-bodied and wheelchair-using family members driving or riding shotgun.
Depending on the level of equipment specified (hand controls, or even some joystick controls for quadriplegic customers), a typical BraunAbility upfit adds in the mid-20,000 US dollars to the price of the minivan.
In conjunction with the launch of this Pacifica project, Chrysler and BraunAbility announced their joint support of a new “Give a Dog a Job Program” benefiting Canine Companions for Independence. The organization ranks as largest trainer and provider of dogs to assist people with physical disabilities. As the organization’s CEO Paul Mundell notes, there’s a certain synergy between adapted vehicles like the BraunAbility Pacifica and the intelligence and life-changing skills of a Canine Companions assistance dog — both give people independence. Several assistance dogs were on hand for the BraunAbility Pacifica’s introduction, including one named Mork who demonstrated his ability to help pull his master’s wheelchair up the ramp, and then he even showed us he could pull out the Stow ‘n Vac vacuum and sweep up his own dog hair. Now that’s impressive. To help Give a Dog a Job, visit www.driveindependence.org.