MARKET REPORT: WAV firms maneuver in challenging sector to secure growth

Currently one of the most compelling sectors in the mobility industry, the market for wheelchair accessible vehicles is seeing exciting innovations in line with the automotive industry. But what are the challenges it faces and how can firms involved overcome them to ensure growth and development for the future? AMP investigates.

The wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) market is one of the newer sectors of the wider access and mobility industry. Yet its consumer base, product innovation and scope for expansion imply it is far from primitive. A mass of general and specialist dealers have clocked the potential to prosper from the rising demand for accessible vehicles and they are all out to get a slice of the action. As it stands, the WAV market is likely to grow naturally alongside the automotive industry in situ which bodes extremely well for dealers involved in the area. The potential for growth in this sector is huge and an insight into where it is headed could prove invaluable for those either looking to break into the market or established dealers wanting to increase their stake.

Motability Operations Ltd, which supplies WAVs through the Motability scheme believes as adaptations and in-car technology makes driving more accessible, there will be an increase in demand for these vehicles. It views this as a “huge opportunity for WAV and adaptation providers”.

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Many specialists in the field predict that demand will increase in all of the WAV subsectors, including Motability, retail and the public sector. WAVCA, the trade association for manufacturers of WAVs, believes the UK in particular is an exciting place to be and notes how the UK market is possibly the most advanced and vibrant market of its kind in Europe. It forecasts that more models than ever before will be available under the UK BSI PAS2012 requirements and that this will remain the benchmark for all WAVs in the UK moving forward into the future.

“WAV manufacturers need to be able to react quickly to changes in base vehicle design and availability.”

The Motability scheme in particular is regarded as a key driving force in the UK market. Most other countries do not offer a system that provides a specialist vehicle to individuals in such a straightforward manner. This is not only beneficial to the end user but has helped manufacturers, converters and dealers to further establish themselves in the mobility market. It has been of particular benefit to McElmeel Mobility, a major WAV manufacturer based in Armargh, Northern Ireland.

“Such a framework [Motability] has provided a great support to those who need it most, but it also gives manufacturers like ourselves a degree of confidence when we innovate,” explains Anton Grimes, the company’s commercial sales and marketing manager. “McElmeel’s was the company that first gained type approval for the Ford Connect and Ford Custom and pioneered them onto the scheme. This confidence has allowed us to go even further in our innovation and five months ago we became the first WAV convertor in Europe to gain QVM accreditation by Ford.”

Similarly, Motability has improved business for Lewis Reed, which has seen the scheme considerably enhance the firm’s finance offering for customers. The WAV provider, which was formed in 1993, has since completed approximately 10,000 vehicle conversions and this is due in no small part to the Motability scheme.

For McElmeel, the support offered by Motability has facilitated its continued innovation. “This means that more and more options are brought before disabled drivers and passengers allowing more and more disabled drivers and passengers to have the freedom offered by converted and adapted vehicles,” comments Grimes. He believes that this cycle will see adapted vehicles become more mainstream and will then be increasingly sought out as people become more aware of them. The internet, and to a greater degree social media, has also played a very large part, he believes.

Legislative woes

As with any sector of the access and mobility industry however, the WAV segment is not without its bumps and barriers. Lewis Reed sees legislation as one of the biggest challenges that the industry will continue to face. In spite of many mobility firms shrugging Brexit off with the ethos of ‘business must go on’, the WAV sector is facing a level of uncertainty as to who will be in charge of legislation in the future. With regulations currently being set in Brussels, there is only murky speculation as to what rules WAV manufacturers and dealers will have to follow once the UK begins its departure from the EU.

Legislation is also a concern for WAVCA. “Changing requirements of European Automotive legislation continue to be the main challenges facing the industry. Emissions legislation, for example, threatens to make it possible to only convert much larger vehicles than our customers wish to use,” comments secretary general, Linda Ling. But she adds: “WAVCA is fortunate in being able to represent the needs of our customers through its sister organisation OECVA (Organisation des Contructeurs de Vehicules Accessibles). Through representation and lobbying we are able to ensure that requirements are commensurate with the size of the market place.”

For some companies, age-old challenges continue to grip the WAV market. Grimes states how the biggest challenge will always be balancing the need for profit against the good of the customer. He comments: “For some that means making as many as possible of the cheapest conversion. It’s not our place in the market but there is a market for it. As they say, if you are not unique you had better be cheap.” McElmeel instead prioritises innovation and customer service as the drivers in its business, but that brings its own challenges.

“We recently spent a lot of money on the type approval of a wheelchair accessible conversion for a nine seat taxi, working with the local authorities to ensure that the vehicle was compliant in every way it needed to be. Yet even though we did this, we are still finding instances where agencies aren’t all working from the same book, so to speak, and you have to continually work to ensure the market is fair to all,” says Grimes. “Other challenges are that there are still quite a few solutions that are not really fit for purpose, things that we will look back upon in 30 years with disbelief. Passenger and caregiver comfort and safety is still not paramount for every manufacturer or solution provider and this sets an artificially low bar on what should be a minimum standard of product.”

With regards to Motability, current economic conditions are making life interesting for suppliers involved in the scheme while maintaining affordability for customers remains challenging, Motability Operations says. But it insists it is working closely with suppliers and investing in products to ensure that all WAVs and vehicle adaptations are as affordable as possible for those that need them. It now offers more than 600 WAVs and 400 vehicle adaptation products through the scheme and relies on its partners to provide products that meet its customers’ needs while maintaining high levels of customer service.

Customer service is a vital component in most companies looking to stand out from one another. Motability says that very often it is the level of service offered to customers that is the key to successfully standing out from the competition. Differentiating from other companies can also mean targeting different price points. As Grimes outlines, some sell at the cheapest prices, some sell higher to more affluent areas and the rest find a balance. McElmeel sees its innovative new solutions and “class-leading” customer care as main drivers in helping it to stay ahead of the game.

“Changing requirements of European Automotive legislation continue to be the main challenges facing the industry.”

Lewis Reed has striven to obtain a competitive edge through its heavy investment in research, design and development, focusing on fit, function and finish. It claims to have more design staff than any other vehicle converter and access to some of the most advanced CAD systems and ancillary equipment. Further to this, Lewis Reed is working to install greater functionality in terms of wheelchair and seating positions, as well as the choice of various access systems.

Market development

Although the potential for growth in the WAV market is considerable it is by no means guaranteed. Dealers and suppliers alike must work to ensure the sector continues to develop. For WAVCA’s Ling, this means reacting and anticipating. “WAV manufacturers need to be able to react quickly to changes in base vehicle design and availability. They also need to be able to anticipate the demands of the market place and overcome the challenges of changing legislation,” she advises.

Meanwhile, Grimes believes, as with any sector, the WAV segment has to keep moving forward in spite of challenges. He hopes McElmeel will also be able develop its own position in the market: “We will continuously look at areas for innovation including new donor vehicles and new sub-markets, while improving the business from within and maintaining our high standards. If we challenge ourselves and the mindsets of anyone associated with disabled driver and passengers to continually produce fit-for-purpose solutions we will move forward.”

Product innovation is similarly at the forefront of its policy moving forward. Its new Mercedes V-Class Grande is designed with optimum luxury, comfort and choice in mind, in line with market tastes. It will be available in two models, the Sport and AMG, with extra-long wheelbase, reflecting the increasingly diverse demands of consumers.

If those involved in the sector continue their work and make good on the initiatives they have outlined, there is enormous potential for growth. New developments in the general automotive industry will likely continue to feed into the WAV sector, allowing greater profits to be made and providing new players with an incentive to enter the scene. The ever-rising consumer base and their awareness of WAVs and schemes like Motability ought to ensure the market is large enough for all manufacturers and dealers currently involved.

But it is paramount that companies continue to be proactive in their approach and react to changes in consumer demands. Tastes are now increasingly complex and fast-changing thanks to the internet, awareness and growing understanding of disability needs, making it more difficult than ever for WAV providers to predict.

Nevertheless, if the market adopts a similar attitude to the companies mentioned in this report, and continue to heed the words of leading bodies like WAVCA and Motability, there are destined to be bountiful times ahead for this innovative industry.

45% of mobility claimants have had vehicles taken away in last four years, scheme claims.

More than 50,000 people have had adapted vehicles taken away since changes to disability benefits four years ago. That’s according to the Motability scheme, which entitles disabled people to lease adapted cars, scooters and powered wheelchairs with part of their personal independence payments (PIP) benefit. It says that a whopping 45% of claimants have had their vehicles removed since changes were made to benefits four years ago.

According to a BBC report, of the 51,000 vehicles removed, more than 3,000 people have rejoined the scheme after the decision to refuse them PIPs was overturned.

To qualify for an adapted Motability vehicle, a person must be unable to walk unaided for 20 metres, compared to the 50 metres requirement which existed before changes to PIP benefits.

Around 900 cars are being removed from people every week as the amount of successful PIP claimants reduces, according to the Muscular Dystrophy charity. Many disabled people and claimants are demanding changes to the Motability scheme so that people can appeal against a decision.

Campaigners include Conservative MP Peter Bone, who told the BBC: “You need it for mobility purposes and maybe you use it for work, but because you lose your PIP award you lose the car at the same time.You appeal against the PIP award and ultimately the tribunal awards you back the PIP, but you’ve already lost the car and maybe your job because of it.”

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