Official BUSRide Road Test: MOBILITY VENTURES MV-1
Transpo Access puts the Mobility Ventures MV-1 to the test in South Bend
By David Hubbard
As Evette Franklin-Ford maneuvered the MV-1 through the humps and bumps on the AM General road test track, her experience evoked a more personal response to the fully dedicated paratransit vehicle from Mobility Ventures, a wholly owned subsidiary of AM General, South Bend, IN.
“The MV-1 would allow my best friend to ride up front with me,” Ford says. “She uses a wheelchair and would absolutely love being able to sit shotgun in a more dignified position. We could actually carry on a conversation.”
Ford is the senior paratransit driver for Transpo Access, South Bend’s demand response service, and an employee of Transdev North America, Lombard, IL, which manages Transpo operations. BUSRide invited Ford to lend her expertise for the Official Road Test of the MV-1 DX model. The company’s intent is not lost on professionals like Ford, whose transit career spans 21 years with South Bend Transpo, with 15 years dedicated to driving for Access.
Small and sedan-like by bus standards, but a proven fit in public paratransit fleets, the concept behind the design and engineering marries the MV-1 with the needs of passengers and caregivers Ford knows so well, and for whom Mobility Ventures manufactures this vehicle.
“The MV-1 does not have a lowered floor like a converted mini-van,” says Ryan Zemmer, marketing manager. “However, we do consider it a ‘low floor’ vehicle because the effort to enter the vehicle is minimal.”
John Walsh, Mobility Ventures vice president, Sales and Marketing, sees this product as an ideal solution for paratransit. Mobility Ventures says every relevant component and accessibility aspect on the MV-1 meets or exceeds ADA vehicle requirements and guidelines.
“We combed through every line item in the American Disabilities Act of 1990,” Walsh says. “In addition to delivering a fully compliant vehicle, our goals are to bring more comfort and convenience to those who rely on paratransit service.”
Three MV-1 models
Mobility Ventures is producing the MV-1 in three models to serve three distinct markets — taxi, transit and consumers.
SE is the least expensive standard edition with a manually operated ramp.
DX is the bestselling deluxe edition for all three markets, and typically the choice of transit agencies. It features an electronically powered ramp, added amenities and standard trim.
LX is the luxury edition launched in 2014, featuring upgraded trim and extra high-end amenities that include stitched leather, rosewood paneling and chrome accents, as well as a different exterior grill treatment.
“The LX is for those customers who would choose to ride or operate the vehicle on their own, or for a private operator to deliver a luxury paratransit service,” Zemmer says. “Wheelchair users may appreciate the opportunity to get out and attend events with more style.”
The back story
MV-1 stands for “Mobility Vehicle Number One.” According to Mobility Ventures, it is the world’s first auto-type wheelchair-accessible vehicle available direct from the factory.
“Mobility Ventures is essentially the newest American automotive OEM with state of the art manufacturing,” Zemmer says. “We build the MV-1 using robotic assembly methods in our fully automated manufacturing plant.”
VPG Autos actually premiered the MV-1 in 2011, with the manufacturing then outsourced to AM General, South Bend, IN. As the manufacturer of the all-purpose Humvee for the U.S. military, the company was also the builder of the commercial H2 Hummer version for General Motors (GM). In the original arrangement, VPG distributed the MV-1 through an agreement with the transit management company MV Transportation, Dallas, TX.
“For both entities to share the same initials was strictly a coincidence,” Walsh says. “Needless to say, this created a great deal of confusion. Everyone thought the transit management company owned the MV-1 car company, when nothing could have been further from the truth. Aside from the fact that MV Transportation competes with other transit management companies, such as Transdev and First Transit, for it to serve as sole distributor of the MV-1 was an unworkable business model.”
In 2012, AM General assisted VPG Autos with a new team to change the distribution, turning to the small and midsize bus dealerships.
“The people selling the buses make the best distribution model,” says Walsh, who has 25 years in the small and midsize industry.
The next year, when VPG Autos ceased operation, AM General bought the company and all rights to the MV-1, which included the name, all company assets, design and distribution.
On the track
The AM General Chippewa Test Track, a 300-acre facility adjacent to the old Studebaker plant, features 17 miles of off-road track for military vehicles and a 2.5 mile paved durability track for the MV-1.
“This facility sets up a brutal test for the MV-1,” Zemmer says. “As an automotive OEM, we test to higher standards under separate rules, much the same as for Ford, GM and Chrysler. Many of the vehicles built for paratransit service do not undergo such rigorous testing; nor are they required to abide by the same rules and standards for testing and durability, because they are primarily involved in aftermarket assembly and conversion.”
Before slipping into the driver’s seat, Ford offers her thoughts on her profession and the present state of paratransit transport.
“Because of the mobility differences we routinely encounter on a day-to day basis, our job requires patience, understanding and compassion for our passengers,” Ford says. “Paratransit is not only a wheelchair issue. We are just as sensitive to the needs of those with hearing and vision challenges.”
Ford says she sees a number of changes that could make the make the ride easier and more enjoyable for her passengers.
“Wheelchairs are getting wider and longer, which is making boarding on many paratransit buses and vans more cumbersome,” she says. “Many wheelchair, lift and bus manufacturers don’t seem to understand the more personal issues with their end users trying to get around on paratransit.”
As for her trip around the track, in addition to track laps, Ford puts the MV-1 DX through a series full-radius turns and sharp steering, as well as controlled sudden stops.
“It is almost unfair to compare this vehicle to the buses I operate,” Ford says. “The MV-1 actually feels more like driving an SUV-type automobile. The ride and handling is so much smoother and quieter. The suspension is far superior to the standard paratransit bus and not as bumpy for the passengers.”
She says, with this smaller car with such responsive handling, paratransit drivers can get in and out of tight spots with much less effort.
Ford says getting wheelchair customers on and off a bus faster without the humiliation she sees at times would be a major industry improvement. This explains her interest in the proprietary ramp and deployment system engineered and built specifically for the MV-1.
“Everyone can enjoy this feature,” she says. “That’s people using wheelchairs, scooters and walkers, as well as ambulatory passengers.”
Depending on the size of the wheelchair, the MV-1 typically accommodates one powered chair, or two manual models. It can also seat five passengers with the optional rear-facing jump seat.
The MV-1 ramp
Mobility Ventures says the MV-1 is the first ever auto-type vehicle to come wheelchair-accessible direct from the factory. Mobility Ventures designed the accessibility ramp, which American Specialty Cars (ASC), Warren, MI, supplies.
The ramp stores in a removable cartridge that fits flush with the floor and is barely discernable when not in use. Using the control buttons mounted inside the rear passenger door, it deploys electronically in two lengths: a short mode when pressed for space or curbside deployment, or a full-length expansion that further reduces the slope. Should the electric controls fail, there is a manual override. On deployment, the ramp extends straight out from the floor and drops down into position.
For safer operation at night, lights in the door panel equivalent to those of a backup camera system illuminate the ramp surface and boarding area in front.
Ford sees the ramp system on the MV-1 as a perfect solution for many of the customers she transports.
“We carry a great number of passengers who want their independence, and appreciate the chance to do as much as they can on their own,” Ford says. “They don’t particularly want the caregivers and operators to do it all for them.”
Asked how she could see the MV-1 making her work easier, Ford came back to the wheelchair placement.
“I appreciate the roomy interior, to help locking down the wheelchairs,” she says. “There is even room for service animals to sit beside the passenger, no matter where they are positioned in the vehicle.”
She says this can be an issue at times, especially for visually impaired customers.
To that point, Zemmer notes that Mobility Ventures has installed heat shields beneath the floor that provide more comfort for service animals, but are mostly imperceptible to someone wearing shoes.
“I can see how customers could feel like they are riding with us, instead of just being hauled around in the back of the bus,” Ford says. “This would make them more like a friend, especially the passengers we see on a regular basis.”
The discussion also evoked a remembrance from Walsh.
“My mother rode paratransit for years and would call complaining of the rough ride, bouncing around in her chair situated behind the rear axles,” he says. “The ride is always nicer if the chair is in front of the rear axle.”
Ford additionally pointed out greater visibility through the front and side for wheelchair passengers. She noted that in a standard van, the windows are sometimes a little higher from their point of view.
“These conveniences only add to the quality of service,” Zemmer says. “Providing the necessary accommodations to maintain a level of dignity, with passengers not feeling degraded by their disability, is critical to paratransit transportation.”
Gasoline or CNG
The DX CNG version served as the vehicle for the BUSRide Official Road Test. Three CNG tanks of different sizes are packaged together to fit into the rear of the vehicle and afford a range of approximately 300 miles. According to Mobility Ventures, the cost of this install on the assembly line is much lower than an aftermarket CNG conversion.
A well-laid plan
Mobility Ventures says its manufacturing plan assures long lasting dependability. Aside from the proprietary componentry that includes the frame, chassis and running gear of its own design, the company hand selects the basic component systems from other well-established OEM suppliers.
“We didn’t feel the need to undertake all the research and development to design our own component systems; we aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Walsh says. “Nor do we need to be particularly brand loyal. Our choice of pre-existing and trusted products from a number of tier-one suppliers comes with millions of dollars in R&D and years on the road.”
For instance, the MV-1 employs a Ford engine and transmission, as well as steering column and airbag. The rear end is similar to the Chevrolet Camaro, and the brakes are similar to another Chevrolet model.
“This production model is very similar to what American Motor Cars did back in the day,” Zemmer says. “We are all about what works best for the MV-1 application.”
NYC opts for the MV-1
“Agencies are looking for solutions that lower cost and help from an operating standpoint,” Walsh says. “Case in point, New York City MTA is replacing its 400 small paratransit bus fleet with MV-1s.”
According to Walsh, the reasoning behind the NYC procurement has to do with cost, as the agency collects fare for each of the 2,000 accessorized vehicles in its fleet (each with one wheelchair lift).
Walsh notes that NYC never buys a new vehicle without putting it through its own in-service testing for at least a year. He says the agency agreed to test 15 CNG and 15 gasoline models and halted after six months when it realized the money it was saving.
“There will never be an end-all paratransit vehicle,” Walsh says. “However, we believe the MV-1 can certainly provide much needed versatility in this market.”