Published: 08th June 2020
Here's how Puducherry start-up Vaahan is making car travel easy for the differently-abled with their Caruna seats
The mechanism in the Caruna seats sense the obstacles on the car and makes sure that the hands, legs don't hit anything. It brings the passenger and the seat out of the door completely
The Accessible India Campaign or Sugamya Bharat Abhiyan was launched to serve the differently-abled or the divyang community of the country by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015. However, it has been difficult to get manufacturers, suppliers or new innovation in the country for disability-friendly products over the years. Puducherry-based start-up Vaahan's innovation called the Caruna swivel seat came into the picture in December 2019 to solve this problem and enable the differently-abled and elderly to move in and out of a vehicle easily.
We have wheelchair ramps, user-friendly washrooms but sometimes what we don't realise is how painful it must be for these differently-abled persons to get in and out of a car. An automotive engineer by profession Ashwin Shreshta, who already had experience in the field of passenger safety — vehicle crashes etc came up with this innovation to make it easier for people with disabilities, geriatric patients, spinal injury patients and people affected by paralysis. "I was an engineer who mainly worked on creating safe cars, design bodies, structure and more. Then I began working on comfort, ergonomics in Germany after I completed my graduation there. I came across several German and Swedish products that allowed disabled people, geriatric patients, spinal injury patients have access to their own cars, suited for their needs. This surprised me to some extent and I wanted to promote a similar kind of accessibility in India," says Ashwin.
The team at Vaahan began working on the Caruna swivel seats in 2017. The launch happened in December 2019. "It's a hardware product. An immense amount of testing, research, simulations, interviews with patients and doctors, video analysis, survey, everything went into the exhaustive R&D process for over two years. Only in January 2020, we began taking orders officially," adds Ashwin.
The Vaahan team
The kind of pain a specially-abled individual has to go through is unbelievable. Ashwin tells us a story about how he realised their pain. "We went to a children's special school in Puducherry and we observed these kids who were handicapped, locally disabled- legs, hands don't function, mentally not capable to use the vehicles day in day out. You have a lot of helpers in India for people with disability to get them into vehicles, trains etc. These kids felt that their physical space is violated when someone else comes to assist them. We thought why don't we come up with something that would reduce the dependence of these kids/persons on helpers. We made the entire seat in a car come out, swivel out, come to a point where they can easily transfer themselves from the vehicle to a platform. No help is needed," explains Ashwin.
The seat has a bunch of sensors below it and they are the same seats we use in cars. The team integrates their mechanism below the seats. The mechanism senses the obstacles on the car and makes sure that the hands, legs don't hit and brings the passenger and the seat out of the door completely. A footrest is also there attached to the seat, passengers can lean on it. "It is fully automatic, and seats are designed for six feet individuals. We are able to pre-programme the seat to move to a person's size, it is very easily customised," says the engineer.
The seats can be put in the cars in two ways. Customers can bring their car to their workshop in Puducherry and they use their existing seat and attach their mechanism below it. Customers in and around Tamil Nadu usually do that whereas, customers located in other parts of the country, there's another way where Vaahan ships out or door delivers the seats. "We fit in our own seats, it's an easy assembling process, take out their original seats and fix this on to their car and it's up and running. They can do it themselves, they don't need help," says Ashwin.
The seats are made in such a way that it can be fitted into any type of car. "Earlier the seats were available only for bigger, luxurious cars. We wanted to make it accessible to anyone, even the person who owns a Maruti 800, or an Alto or someone who owns a Jaguar, Innova or a big SUV. It is an import substitute product, much more versatile, adapted to Indian car variations," adds Ashwin.
Currently, the seats are priced at Rs 75,000 + GST + installation charges depending on where the customer gets it done. The team already has close to 26 advance bookings, and 70-80 others have contacted them already enquiring about the seats. "A few cannot afford this price, we aim to bring it down as soon as possible. We installed some in Puducherry in prior field trials in various cars to get feedback, we are waiting for the lockdown to end before we start selling commercially," says the innovator.
As far as their future plans go, Ashwin says, "We want to address the difficulty faced by patients with spinal injury as well. We want to make a wheelchair that can fit into any car. We are also trying to address problems of fully paralysed persons, promote accessibility of cars, and last-mile connectivity. We are planning on an innovation that can transform into a wheelchair so they will be able to drive or manoeuvre themselves into their homes. We will hopefully be launching our next product in 2021."