|Twice bitten, Maruti mulls car for disabled|
Indian Express, Bombay, 30/01/2006
|Mumbai, January 29: Neenu Kevlani was afflicted with polio when she was nine months old. Today, she is 35 and a successful consultant; but her ‘‘ultimate fantasy’’ still remains to drive a car.
Kevlani attributes ‘‘daily commuting hazards’’ in Mumbai to unruly taxidrivers, cars with narrow passageways and, of course, ‘‘the notoriously higher seats’’.
She makes the perfect target audience for automobile major Maruti Udyog’s Solio, a disabled-friendly vehicle that was recently unveiled at the eighth Auto Expo in New Delhi. ‘‘But we may or may not launch it,’’ cautions a Maruti spokesperson. ‘‘We are filtering the interest the car received at the expo.’’
The expo saw a footfall of 1 million, which Maruti is scanning to check response to Solio. The cautious approach follows the company’s earlier failed attempts in creating a market for this segment.
During the late 1980s, Maruti was the only company to launch an automatic transmission version of the Maruti 800, pegged as ‘the car for the disabled’. Auto experts clarify that the car, though priced low, sold well only for the first two years.
The demand was then usurped by the general public as automatic transmission—a clutch-free system—was still a new phenomenon. Their real target audience missed out and the car was later shelved.
The second attempt came disguised in a good marketing package called Zen Easy Drive in 2001. Easy Drive came with automatic transmission and the option of nine disabled-friendly combinations—adjustments where car movements could be adapted to the disabled person’s needs. Both attempts failed as ‘‘there was no demand’’, stresses the Maruti spokesperson.
Solio, the company’s third attempt, is still a ‘concept’ in the company corridors.
It is a variant of Zen Easy Drive, in the WagonR format with some extra features: The front co-driver’s seat rotates right out of the vehicle to enable the passenger to get in easily, there is also a ramp at the rear to allow easy passage for a wheelchair.
Sunita Sancheti (34), an active member of Able Disabled All People Together (ADAPT), a non-governmental organisation for the physically handicapped, welcomes Solio: ‘‘It’s long overdue,’’ she says. ‘‘In fact, it’s a vicious circle of demand being thwarted because companies don’t explore possibilities.’’
That’s because of bad infrastructure, say some global companies, like Ford, who are willing to invest if public zones including shopping malls are made disabled-friendly.
‘‘This lack of respect for disabled persons,’’ says one spokesperson, ‘‘is one reason global majors have not introduced such cars in India, though they’re the norm abroad.’’
According to Bijoy Kumar Y, editor of automobile magazine Motoring, companies do not show interest in this segment as it is not incentive driven: The government has not given any benefits to manufacturers for this segment.
‘‘Besides, these days, most cars come with automatic transmission. So many dealers just put in disabled-friendly systems,’’ he says.
Automobile engineer Ferdinand Rodricks—his resume boasts cars designed for Professor Stephen Hawkings during his visit to India—feels manual adjustments are a good alternative to automatic transmission.
Rodricks’s Feero Equip initiative has produced 400 vehicles for people with mobility aids.
‘‘The number of persons losing their limbs in accidents is on the rise and many keep approaching me for cars,’’ he explains.
Another person who had to bend to the growing demand is non-governmental organisation Flora Foundation’s Arun Sabnis, who is planning to introduce 100 disabled-friendly taxis as part of his Call-a-Cab initiative.
About 50 Maruti Versas and 50 Tata Marinas will come customised with ramps for wheelchairs and attendant service. ‘‘We got requests from various disabled people to include this initiative as they commute regularly,’’ he says.
That’s good news. ‘‘It’s initiatives like these that can mainstream disabled people like us these days, we are aware and progressive. Look at me, I commute daily and am employed. Now, give me my car.’’