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NZ-designed wheelchair vehicles banned here but on show at VW event in Europe

on October 2 2014 | in Industry news, Latest news | by | with Comments Off

New Zealand-designed vehicles for wheelchair users in Europe will go on show this month at an international Volkswagen Group exhibition in France – while transport bodies here continue to ban almost identical vehicles from our roads. The two converted Skoda Yetis (one pictured above in France) are the first of 10 to be built

for French special needs people before Christmas by Waiuku company U Drive Mobility (UDM) at its subsidiary company’s plant near Bordeaux. Two of UDM’s Waiuku technicians – production manager Dale Stevens and fabricator Ursa Faithfull – are working at the French plant.

Skoda in France

French factory floor: Kiwis Dale Stevens (right front) and Ursa Faithfull (right back). The three other men are French.

UDM built and sold eight of the same vehicles for NZ wheelchair users but they were ruled unsafe by the Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association last year and taken off the road by its ruling body, the NZ Transport Agency. The converted Skoda Yetis allow wheelchair users the freedom of driving the cars themselves. The Skodas are still banned, although UDM director Roger Phillips and the NZTA have been working to resolve the stalemate. Phillips in the last 24 hours has written to Prime Minister John Key, Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee, and NZTA chief Geoff Dangerfield in an effort to move things along. The NZTA ban means the eight NZ clients haven’t been able to use the vehicles for the past 14 months. One of the eight, a Wellington women, died last month without ever being able to use her car. The remaining seven call themselves ‘the invisible victims’ and want the NZTA to lift the ban so they can enjoy the open road again. UDM makes major changes to the original Skodas, including cutting out the steel floor and replacing it with a lighter aluminium composite floor that sits lower to accommodate, in part, a ramp for wheelchairs.

The finished U Drive Mobility product

The ban centres mostly on the replacement composite floor. The LVVTA – set up in the late 1990s to certify hobby vehicles such as hotrods – continues to say the new floor weakens the overall structure of the vehicle, although it admits it doesn’t have a certification standard for composites. The NZTA wants the floor reinforced. UDM cites expert analysis that says the composite floor is plenty strong as it is. Indeed the French government’s vehicle test facility, UTAC, has passed the converted Skoda for European Union certification. Phillips’ French distribution company ACA – a division of UDM Europe – has been given a $NZ600,000 provincial government grant to kickstart production. The two Skoda vehicles bound for the VW Group (VW owns Skoda) exhibition in Toulouse are the first products of the grant. NZ Government agencies and ‘the Italian job’ The same names and faces continue to crop up when you look into demand in NZ for wheelchair-access vehicles. Many of the government agency people involved in the current standoff with UDM and Phillips were also in the picture when the Accident Compensation Commission bought 90 special needs vehicles in 2007-2009 from Italian company KIVI. They were Kia Carnival people-movers, shipped from the Kia factory in South Korea to Italy and converted by KIVI for wheelchair users in NZ. There were 40 short-wheelbase units at $NZ89,599 each, and 50 long-wheelbase examples at $NZ94,825 each. They were signed off by allegedly unqualified NZ Government agency people at the KIVI plant, about 50km from Turin. All up the cars cost the NZ taxpayer $NZ8.325 million. Upon their arrival here, a heavy vehicle engineer contracted to ACC said he was asked by a top ACC executive to check out one example. The engineer, along with a fellow from the NZTA and another from the LVVTA did so. He then sent a report dated November 10, 2008, to the ACC listing eight major faults and declaring the converted Kias unfit for NZ roads. His was the only signature on the report. One of the faults was the replacement floor, the design of which was not “an accepted engineering practice,” he wrote. “There is no continuity of under-floor strengthening from the front of the vehicle to the rear as was in the original vehicle construction.” And the new floor was made of “flexible” steel that, in an accident, could “distort upwards into the passenger compartment”. He could find no documentary evidence, he wrote, that the vehicles complied with European Union standards. A week later he got a letter from an NZTA executive saying it had had a complaint from the ACC about him and that he had better pull his head in if he wanted to remain a contractor. There began a chain of events that showed both government agencies didn’t have a clue about what they had bought from Italy for NZ$8.325m. Watch this space …  

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