Currently reading: Are disabled people being left behind by electrification?
Purchase costs, charging accessibility and EVs themselves pose issues, says leading charity

A new initiative formed from a collaboration between Coventry University and mobility charity Motability will bring new insight and opportunities for disabled drivers, with an aim to make everyday vehicles more accessible.

The university’s National Transport Design Centre – a state-of-the-art facility that conducts research into the future of transport design – will give members of the disabled community the opportunity to help develop the future of transport policy and practice.

Previous research that it has conducted showed that unsuitable transport design for disabled people caused “reduced economic opportunities, social exclusion, a reduced quality of life and other negative impacts”.

Although there are several organisations, charities and schemes to support disabled people, some believe members of the community are being left behind with the push for electrification, in terms of both the vehicles and infrastructure.

Difficulties posed by charging, ownership costs and vehicle design present accessibility issues for the disabled community as the UK undergoes electrification.

Challenges with charging

Motability estimates that around 1.35 million disabled drivers or passengers will be relying on the UK’s EV charging infrastructure by 2035.

Rachael Badger, a director at Motability, says there are several issues.“There are a lot of points where there can be challenges through the whole journey of choosing and buying a car,” she said. “Firstly, understanding options for making informed choices, like thinking of moving to an automatic, having to charge it, having to understand what their choices are as a consumer.”

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Range anxiety, while also an issue faced by non-disabled drivers, is exacerbated for less able-bodied drivers. Many have to transport heavy equipment such as hoists or lifts, which reduces range, and journeys planned with accessible rest stops and public toilets are considerations, leading to some selecting plug-in hybrids over full EVs. Getting in and out of the car, internal storage adaptations and the car’s user interface can also be problematic.

In addition, parking bays are often too small for wheelchair access or easy mobility. Charging cables can weigh too much and require too much force to be plugged in, while other people are affected by the height of the unit’s screen. Some will have chargers installed at home, but those living in flats or apartments might not have the same opportunity, due to a lack of space or particular aspects of their impairment.

“You might get a home charger installed, but some people find that particularly stressful or difficult to navigate,” said Badger. “Some with cognitive disabilities worry about having people come in and look at their electricity supply and take photos of their driveway. “Then you’ve got to find and use the public infrastructure. Around 1.35 million people will be reliant on public charging infrastructure by 2035 and won’t be able to have a charger installed at home, so there are issues about where the chargers are and if they’re rapid chargers, because of the payments and other factors.”

Motability believes the focus now should be to scale up and take advantage of the rapid growth opportunities available for charging providers, including implementing connector standards.

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Rising costs of going electric

Many aren’t able to afford the higher costs of EVs and other additional outlays, such as home charger installation.The cheapest new EV, after the government’s recently reduced £1500 Plug-in Car Grant, is the Smart EQ Fortwo, at £20,200, followed by the Fiat 500 (£21,495) – both small cars that don’t maximise accessibility and storage. The MG ZS EV is the least expensive electric SUV, at £29,495. By contrast, the cheapest new ICE car, the Dacia Sandero, costs just £10,145.

Badger said: “When you think about buying the vehicle, cost is a challenge. A lot of disabled people are on lower incomes, so while prices are falling, there’s still a significant gap there, particularly for people who need a larger vehicle for their mobility needs or a wheelchair accessible vehicle.” Financial assistance is available to some.

Many drivers use a Mobility Allowance as part of the Disability Living Allowance distributed by the government and don’t buy their cars outright. This is paid at different rates based on the nature of their disability, but those with the higher or enhanced rate get £62 per week. Around 630,000 use this allowance to lease a car through the Motability scheme.

Encouraging moves coming

There’s optimism that change is coming, though. Earlier this year, the government announced plans for a more inclusive and reliable charging network in partnership with Motability, the Department for Transport and the British Standards Institute (BSI). Changes are targeted for this summer.

The Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV), Motability and the BSI will work with industry stakeholders (including charger operators) and disability charities to ensure that consumers can find the right chargers for their needs. Although operators insist that the design of publiccharge points is “carefully considered”, changes will be made to accommodate those who require increased space between bollards and to make chargers, parking bays and kerb heights more suitable for wheelchair users.

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“With sales of EVs increasing and the government’s net-zero ambitions accelerating, I want to make it as easy as possible for EV drivers to charge up their vehicles at public charge points right across the UK, regardless of their mobility,” then transport minister Rachel Maclean stated in June 2021.

Badger said: “We’ve seen a lot of inaccessible chargers, but perhaps equally it hasn’t been easy for people to understand what ‘accessible’ means for EV chargers, to have time to develop inclusive design solutions. “We’re working with OZEV to develop new [charger] design standards and with the BSI, who are focused on accessibility, and the UK is the first in the world to do this. “If we get this right and standards are adopted, we can be confident that disabled people won’t be left behind in the shift to EVs.” Positives for accessibility have also been drawn from the new charger design that the government unveiled at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November last year.

“If we get this right now, that would be better and cheaper for the industry than having to do a retrofit process to adapt charge points later,” said Badger. “What we would like to see happen is that charge point standards are put together next year and they become compulsory.” Charitable disability design and engineering firm Designability is also hoping for change and recently conducted in-depth research into accessible EV charging.

“It’s clear from our research with disabled EV users that public charging solutions are failing them in many ways,” said Keir Haines, Designability’s senior product designer. “We’ve seen some examples of good practice that the charging industry can learn from. However, usability, reliability and, most importantly for disabled people, accessibility is often poor in some if not all aspects of public charging.”

Haines believes there’s ample opportunity for better design. “Accessibility needs are extremely wide-ranging,” he said, “and so the challenge now is to develop solutions that can accommodate the breadth of access needs, to enable as many people as possible to have a convenient and enjoyable public charging experience.”

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The challenges of converting an EV

While the UK’s EV charging infrastructure has a way to go, some companies are working to improve the accessibility of EVs themselves, which are often harder than ICE vehicles to adapt for disabled drivers. “The main challenges with converting a vehicle for disabled drivers is connecting the vehicle to our equipment,” said Grant Harbour, CEO of Hemel Hempstead-based Steering Developments.

“Manufacturers change systems too frequently without warning, so a lot of development work is required to access things like ancillary controls and park-position signals.” It is possible to convert an EV, said Harbour, but each one poses a challenge, because they’re set up differently.

“It’s vehicle-dependent. We have to shut down the main batteries of the vehicle to make it safe before we can work on it, which takes extra time,” he explained.

“With the floors now becoming a complete battery cell, we can’t drill. Original mounts are going to have to be used, which again can impact on time – and whether we can actually still install our equipment, not to mention the extra costs involved for special equipment and training.” The most commonly installed kit for disabled drivers includes high-tech electronic steering, braking and throttle systems so that joysticks can be used instead of pedals and a wheel.

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A Driver's View

Mat Campbell-Hill, a former Team GB Paralympic fencer, believes that the government could do more to address the needs of disabled drivers.

“The disabled community and those associated with them [carers] are already out of sight and a long way behind, and they’re not actively being pulled forward,” he said.

The 42-year-old, who won bronze medals at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in 2014 and the World Championships in 2019, is now a non-executive director and audit and risk advisory committee member for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. He drives a Tesla Model S Performance and therefore uses the Tesla Supercharger network, which he believes offers several benefits over the UK’s extended public charging infrastructure.

“If I’m going to a Tesla charger, I know well before I’m there how many chargers are available and whether or not they’re working,” he explained. “When I’m using the public network, it’s stressful. It’s just the idea of: ‘Is the charger going to work? Is it going to take my card? Am I rolling out the massive blue cable or using the one attached to the machine?’

“For wheelchair users, it’s going to take up to five minutes. There’s an inherent risk and you’re more vulnerable [when] getting out, having your wallet out and trying to work out how to pay for things. It’s not ideal.”

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Join the debate

Add a comment…
HughB 18 January 2022

Personally, I don't think we should be electrifying disabled people.

si73 18 January 2022
So many people are being left behind with electrification due to the overall costs involved and suitability of available vehicles, whether that be suitable for accessibility, charging infrastructure based on where you live, range or vehicle type, like a sensibly priced and sized family car. No doubt as more EVs become available, their respective prices will drop and more will reach the used market, and hopefully the charging infrastructure will improve at a similar rate to enable more to access EVs.

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