I was recently reminded of how good most of us have it. Given the opportunity, we can hop in any car and go—to school, to work, to the ends of the Earth. Ain’t no mountain high enough, from sea to shining sea, get in, sit down, shut up, and hold on.
We’ve turned a wrench or two in the name of personalization. Below six figures, most of us quickly get used to our vehicles and start thinking upgrades. We want more power, better handling, that perfect wheel/tire fitment that brings it all together just right.
Each successive maintenance, repair, or mod fills us with a little more confidence in our abilities. This is how The Gearhead Project came to be founded on the simple belief that if we can fix our machines, we can fix anything—including our lives.
We love our vehicles because they represent freedom. We love our mods because they represent our identity—we are not simply consumers. We are gearheads and we like to think we consider ourselves arbiters of automotive value and potential.
And it’s all vanity.
As gearheads, we learn how to modify our vehicles for ourselves. And we know that, the more we do to vehicles, the more we know, and the more possibility we have at our fingertips—but we also know it gets harder the further down the road we go. Just compare bolting up intake, header, and exhaust to wiring up a standalone EMS and tuning it.
For the more than 4M people in the United States estimated to be in wheelchairs, the number of potential vehicle choices shrinks fairly insultingly. There are literally millions of people experiencing real setbacks simply because the supply of affordable vehicles THEY can just hop in and go where they need to go is a fraction of what the majority of us already take for granted.
It can be hard to talk real numbers due to the once-a-decade census being the best source of data on the subject, but we’re told the entire wheelchair accessible (WAV) market probably turns out about 30,000 vehicles per year. At that rate, it would take more than 150 years to fill that need, assuming nobody ever needed a wheelchair again after today.
But there’s hope.
I toured the Vantage Mobility International (VMI) factory in Phoenix last week. I walked in thinking, “Lowered floor minivans for handicapped people. Neat.” Two hours later, casually walking out to my 20-year old truck parked on the street, I found myself humbled and checking my privilege.
It doesn’t matter how much we appreciate what we’ve got. That we can go about our lives so carefree and thoughtless is something we’re beyond fortunate we can take for granted. Even those of us who use every tow we get from AAA each year are privileged. How long is the wait for a flatbed in rush hour? How long do you suppose that wait is if you need a WAV?
After my tour of the VMI production line, our group sat down for lunch with several members of the VMI team to learn more about the industry, the problems they’re solving, and the path forward. I’ve met some passionate people in my day, but few more passionate than the folks at VMI.
We gearheads put ridiculous time, money, and effort into incremental improvement. Often all we get to show for that effort is a time slip, compliments from our friends, and internet popularity points—all nice feels, for sure—but this gearhead feels like we could be doing so much more.
We can do better.
Most of us don’t think about wheelchair accessible vehicles much beyond the odd parking space or “the way they ‘lift’ those vans”. Gearheads naturally equate cars with freedom. There are still millions of people out there who can’t get where they need to go without a metric shit-ton of hassle—if they can go at all. And while the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might mandate businesses make sure anyone can access their businesses, it doesn’t mean any businesses have to ensure the products themselves are accessible.
It was incredible walking this massive production line, where over 200 people were hustling in unison to turn out such a fine product. Seeing all that tech and manpower and resources focused on serving those who are still underserved reminded this gearhead that we could be doing a LOT more with our collective skills and experiences.
And I’m told being into cars can be a legit benefit to someone looking to work in this industry, if not this organization.
Busy as the factory was, everyone appeared to be smiling; happy to be there. I guess, when you’re delivering transformative solutions to customers you genuinely care about, it’s a bit easier to get out of bed in the morning. You might say everyone at VMI is working toward a unifying cause in an organization where those who care enough to show up and do what must be done have clear paths forward.
This story isn’t over. Not yet.
Consider this a head’s up that TGP is looking to prioritize stories of gearheads like us sharing our skills with those who need them most. If we can make our machines better, we can make our world better.
Thank you to Jeff, Kristina, Brian, Charlie, and everyone else at VMI for sharing this with us.