MAKUHARI, Chiba Pref. — Automakers over the last decade have expanded their lineup of vehicles catering to the needs of disabled people and the elderly.
The 38th Tokyo Motor Show, which opens to the public Wednesday, focuses on a variety of vehicles designed for disabled drivers.
The sales volume of vehicles equipped with devices to help disabled people drive on their own has been on the rise. But given the small market size, only a limited number of automakers have produced such vehicles.
Disabled drivers welcome the carmakers’ recent focus, saying they hope more vehicles equipped with driving aids will be produced.
“Being able to drive on my own has completely changed my life,” said Mamoru Inaba, who was rendered a paraplegic by a car accident in 1977.
Inaba, 48, has been driving a customized Mitsubishi vehicle that allows him to drive by only using his hands.
“I hope more disabled people will use vehicles equipped with driving aids,” prompting automakers to offer a wider range of options, he said.
Toyota Motor Corp., which has a 60 percent share of the domestic welfare vehicle market, is displaying a concept car featuring aids that allow people in wheelchairs to get into the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat without assistance.
Equipped with electric sliding doors, ramps and lifts operated via remote control, users can get in and out without getting out of their wheelchairs, which are developed exclusively to fit in the car. The company said the concept car offers disabled people a more active life.
Isuzu Motor Ltd. is displaying a concept tractor rig that features an electric lift for a driver in a wheelchair — the first large vehicle of its kind.
“The concept is to provide driving job opportunities for disabled people,” Isuzu vehicle designer Kiyoko Tachibana said.
But the automakers appear to face the same hurdles as in the past — the high cost of producing vehicles specifically geared toward disabled drivers.
Neither Toyota nor Isuzu plan to introduce their concept vehicles into the market.
Tachibana said, “We are still not sure whether there is enough demand.”
She said that the company would consider selling the truck if it received a good response.
The Japan Auto Manufacturers Association said the domestic market for so-called welfare vehicles in fiscal 2003 totaled 42,871, including cars and buses, up more than tenfold over the past decade.
Although the sales volume of cars equipped with driving aids for the disabled is still small, standing at 605 vehicles in fiscal 2003, it showed a 48.6 percent rise from the previous year. JAMA estimates that another 5,000 standard vehicles were converted the same year.
But as the market for vehicles equipped with driving aids is not expected to expand dramatically, available models will remain limited in scope.
“The market size is still small and mass production is impossible, making it difficult for automakers to lower development costs,” said Fujio Kameda, president of Nissin Jidosha Kogyo Co., an engineering firm in Saitama Prefecture that specializes in customizing cars for physically disabled drivers.
Many automakers are cooperating closely with venture makers like Nissin when it comes to customization.
Carmakers say they place emphasis on improving services, including providing customers with sufficient information to better meet individual needs.
Toyota, which makes welfare versions of almost all of its car models, has showrooms solely dedicated to such vehicles. The first was established in Tokyo in 1998, and the number has since risen to eight, in areas ranging from Hokkaido to Kyushu.
“Staff with special knowledge about welfare vehicles advise customers about selecting cars and customization,” Toyota welfare vehicle spokeswoman Kayo Saito said.
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