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CAR CULTURE

Shows Offers Promising Glimpse of Future

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page G02

DETROIT -- It generally makes little sense to hunt for central themes at car shows, such as the North American International Auto Show that opened to the public here Saturday and the Los Angeles Auto Show, which ends its 2005 run today.

That kind of intellectual safari, a favorite of journalists in hot pursuit of the "big picture," assumes that somehow, somewhere, the world's car companies and automotive suppliers got together and decided as a group: "This is what we're going to do."

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The truth is quite different. What is shown is influenced by individual corporate views of global and regional automotive markets, cherished corporate traditions and the competitiveness of current product portfolios.

Thus, the "big picture" frequently is a fragmented thing, including some odd pieces that, at first glance, seem to have little to do with cars or trucks.

The "Tweel" tire/wheel technology presented here by Michelin Co. and the iBot high-rise wheelchair that eventually will ride on Tweel tire/wheels are two examples of apparently non-automotive technologies that could affect the future of automotive transportation.

In brief, the Tweel is a super-strong yet flexible and airless tire/wheel combination designed to provide maximum traction on a variety of surfaces. Think of it as an advanced run-flat tire.

When affixed to the iBot high-riding wheelchair, the brainchild of Dean Kamen, chairman of New Hampshire-based Segway LLC, the Tweel enables wheelchair occupants to be at eye level with ambulatory people and to move their mobile chairs up and down stairs without other human assistance.

That may seem a small thing to folks primarily interested in horsepower and vehicle handling capabilities, but it is very big news, a major breakthrough for the world's wheelchair users.

In increasing wheelchair users' personal mobility, Tweel/iBot gives them a medicine that's essential to their coping ability and potential healing -- dignity, and lots of it.

I say this as one who has spent much time as a patient in hospitals, stays during which I got to meet and know many people temporarily and permanently assigned to wheelchairs. For some, there is an overriding sense of independence and dignity lost, of being cut down to size by accident or disease -- depressive self-perceptions that get in the way of coping and healing.


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