Listen to this article
In the centre of a sleepy town in the east of the Czech Republic a small car pulls up to the kerb, front on. The engine is turned off, the windscreen lifts up, the front bumper folds forwards and a man in a wheelchair rolls down two small ramps on to the pavement.
Elbee, a vehicle designed, developed and built in the heart of central Europe, could change the lives of millions with physical disabilities, giving them the freedom of car drivers from the comfort and safety of their wheelchair.
“There is no other product worldwide produced to fit this need,” says Ladislav Brazdil, product manager.
“There are many, many people using wheelchairs worldwide,” he adds. “But still this has not attracted big companies.”
Elbee’s innovative front-opening mechanism — which allows wheelchair-users to enter and take the driving position without the need for cumbersome, complicated seat changes or the assistance of another person — has earned the company a place in the New Europe 100 ranking for 2015.
Based in Lostice, a small town 200km east of Prague, Elbee was developed as a subsidiary of ZLKL, an engineering company owned by Mr Brazdil’s father. The vehicle began life in 2003 as a research project commissioned to give the component manufacturer experience of final assembly processes, as a hedge against the possibility of low-cost Asian suppliers stealing its business with companies such as Germany’s Siemens and Daimler. To complete the project the company found “an engineer with an idea”.
Four years later the first prototype was manufactured. After six years of testing, and multiple improvements and new versions, Elbee was granted approval for use on EU roads in 2013.
At this point, the research project was over. But when ZLKL took the product to trade fairs around Europe the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Just 2.5m long and 1.3m wide, Elbee is not technically a car in the eyes of EU regulators, but is designated as a heavy quadricycle, like Renault’s electric Twizy city car, which allows it to benefit from lighter regulations than a standard motor vehicle.
Elbee’s 300cc Italian scooter petrol engine means it can drive on motorways and reach speeds of about 100kph. It also has a passenger seat behind the driver’s.
A lever operated by a single hand controls both the accelerator and the brakes, and the vehicle’s designers are developing both a joystick and handlebars as alternatives to a steering wheel for drivers of different abilities.
ZLKL is sure that the company’s small size — combining engineering experience, a respectable research and development budget, small-scale flexibility and bespoke manufacturing techniques — helped bring the vehicle to market.
“Products developed in people’s garages ran out of money,” Mr Brazdil says. “But every single wheelchair user is different, with different needs and different kinds of disability.” The product must be very flexible, he adds. “It is not like building 100,000 vehicles on a line without worrying about the differences between the customers. So big car companies are not interested.”
ZLKL has signed a contract with a partner to export and distribute Elbee to France and is in talks with distributors across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Japan and Australia.
But, while it reckons sales could reach 150,000 a year, ZLKL is not getting ahead of itself. Mr Brazdil says it will make about 100 vehicles in 2016, rising to about 1,000 by 2018, as the company, which employs 200 and has an annual turnover of €15m, scales up production.
“We are just a midsized company, so we need to go step by step,” says Mr Brazdil. “But in the Czech Republic we have a great tradition of developing vehicles.”