Necedah – A Wisconsin camper manufacturer, inspired by an employee who uses a wheelchair to get around, has developed a motorized wheelchair that soon could be giving people with spinal cord injuries the mobility to participate in off-road activities such as hunting and fishing.
Powered by a small motorcycle engine, the chair is capable of speeds up to 25 mph and is geared to handle hills.
“I can get down into a valley to see what’s there. It’s also good for getting around something like a car show,” said Chris Wiedmeyer, an employee at Camp-Inn trailers who has used a wheelchair for 11 years.
Wiedmeyer and the owners of Necedah-based Camp-Inn trailers developed a do-it-yourself kit that makes it possible to attach a small four-stroke engine to a standard Invacare wheelchair often used by people with physical disabilities. They have started a company, Motive Transportation, to sell the kits.
The kit uses an engine almost identical to one Honda used on its Mini Trail bikes in the 1970s. Now made in China, the compact engine and automatic transmission bolt onto the wheelchair frame underneath the seat.
The kit, expected to become available in late January or soon after, will sell for about $1,200. The price does not include the chair or the engine, which is sold by another company for about $150 and comes in several sizes from 50 to 110 cubic centimeters. What’s included in the kit is the drivetrain, controls and other components.
The Motive motorized wheelchair kit can be assembled in a couple of hours by anyone with average mechanical skills, according to the company. There’s a video that shows the assembly process step by step.
“If you can put a bicycle together, you will be able to put this together,” said Cary Winch, Camp-Inn co-owner.
Wiedmeyer has tested prototypes of the unit and says it climbs hills and is well-suited for gravel paths. It isn’t as capable in the snow, he added.
The engine gets about 44 miles per gallon, and the kit comes with a half-gallon gas tank.
Whether the motorized wheelchair is street legal would depend on state and local laws.
“As far as we can tell, in most states it’s legal to drive a powered wheelchair down the side of the road on either the shoulder or the sidewalk. But I am not sure lawmakers had a motorized wheelchair in mind” when writing the regulations, said Craig Edevold, Camp-Inn co-owner.
Currently there’s not much, if anything, available in the marketplace in wheelchairs powered by a gasoline engine.
Motive Transportation envisions selling its kits to disabled military veterans who enjoy motor sports and the outdoors. It could be a natural for young veterans, for example, returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with spinal cord injuries.
“These are guys who have raced cars and motorcycles their whole lives. We may have a lot of young veterans driving these things,” Winch said.
The powered unit also could be useful for someone living in a rural area and could be outfitted with lights to extend driving hours.
“I wouldn’t drive it down the street in a major city,” Edevold said.
The kit doesn’t include a seatbelt or other crash protection. Steering and braking are done with the wheelchair’s standard controls.
It’s a stable rig since the weight of the engine and drivetrain are under the seat.
“But you are driving a vehicle that’s capable of going fast and getting you in trouble if you aren’t careful. It gets a little scary at speeds above 20 miles per hour,” Edevold said.
A wheelchair with a gasoline engine could be useful for hunters and anglers who can’t ride an all-terrain vehicle.
It would have more off-road capability than an electric scooter, said Scott Anderson, a wheelchair user and benefits specialist with North Country Independent Living, a northern Wisconsin organization that promotes independent lifestyles for people with disabilities. The group is based in Superior, near Duluth, Minn.
“People up here are pretty much geared toward the outdoors, so I could definitely see interest in this,” Anderson said. “I know one guy who uses an electric scooter to get to his deer hunting stand. He lives to hunt and fish and has gone through all kinds of equipment adaptations so that he can continue doing what he loves.”
The weight of an engine kit, about 85 pounds, could be an issue for rolling the wheelchair by hand.
For safety reasons, the gasoline engine could not be operated indoors.
But this could be a wheelchair that someone uses outdoors, while they have another unit for indoors.
“There’s a time and a place for this kind of invention. We need plenty of new ideas,” said Thomas Stripling, director of research and education for Paralyzed Veterans of America, based in Washington, D.C.
The motorized unit could fill a niche in places where there’s little or no electricity to recharge a battery-powered motor.
It also could be useful in developing nations such as Afghanistan, said Christopher Lewis, president of the American Wheelchair Mission in Camarillo, Calif.
In addition, wheelchairs with a gasoline engine could result in a new category in wheelchair racing. It could be a lot of fun for guys who enjoy motor sports, said John Mryczko, a wheelchair racing enthusiast from Morton Grove, Ill.
When he was 19 years old, Mryczko suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident. He has been active in wheelchair sports ever since his injury 11 years ago.
“Before my accident, I was involved in action sports for over 10 years. Being involved in BMX racing, skateboarding and snowboarding since the age of 9, my life never had a dull moment,” Mryczko says on the Web site Extreme Chairing, devoted to wheelchair sports.
By Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel