All Stacy Zoern wanted was a car she could safely drive on her own. Born with a genetic condition called spinal muscular atrophy, the intellectual property lawyer uses a wheelchair to get around her downtown Austin neighborhood and calls friends when she needs a ride. So when Zoern, 32, read an article in the spring of 2010 about a tiny electric car designed from the ground up to be wheelchair accessible, she called the Hungarian company that made it and tried to buy one. But the company had halted production right after it completed the prototype. “Their bank loan had fallen through,” says Zoern.
A year later Zoern had raised $2.5 million, mostly from private investors, and bought the company so she could bring the snappy one-seater to market. To get inside the Kenguru (pronounced kangaroo), the driver presses a remote control, and the back hatch pops up. A short ramp descends, and the wheelchair user can roll right into the driver’s area. Drivers accelerate and turn using motorcycle-style handlebars. The 1,200-pound vehicle, which looks similar to a SmartCar, travels at a maximum speed of 25 mph and has about a 50-mile range before its lead-acid batteries need recharging. Because it’s registered as a neighborhood electric vehicle, owners don’t need a driver’s license, but can travel in regular car lanes where the speed limit is 45mph or less. Zoern just began production on the $25,000 Kenguru, which is currently sold only through dealers in Europe. She says she expects the cars to be available in the U.S. within the next year.
The Kenguru isn’t the only solution for wheelchair users, but it’s definitely the coolest. It can cost $20,000 to retrofit a minivan with a lift for a motorized chair, which Zoern and many of the 3 million wheelchair users in the U.S. need because they don’t have the upper-body strength to maneuver a manual one. Even manual chair users often find it exhausting to lift their bodyweight in and out of conventional car seats.
Then there’s the matter of style. “Teenagers and people in their 20s don’t want to drive around in a minivan,” says Zoern, who published an autobiography in 2007. She stopped driving at age 19 after she totaled her modified Grand Caravan. And while she can’t drive the first Kenguru model because it only works with manual chairs, she’s already working on version 2.0, which will be roomy enough for motorized models like her own. With a little luck, she’ll be driving again for the first time since she was a teenager.