When visiting Florida earlier this year, Parisian Charlotte de Vilmorin — who has been in a wheelchair her entire life — was desperately searching for a car adapted for people with disabilities.
She finally found one, but soon discovered how expensive it was to rent — for 10 days, it cost her approximately $1,000.
“It’s very difficult to get around when you are in a wheelchair, because public transportation is not accessible,” de Vilmorin tells Mashable. “You can’t just grab a cab or rent a regular car.”
The constant lack of options inspired her to take matters into her own hands. She cofounded Wheeliz, a French car-sharing service that easily connects people with disabilities to owners of adapted cars.
There are approximately 100,000 privately owned adapted cars in France, de Vilmorin says, but they may not necessarily be in use every day. Wheeliz offers the opportunity for adapted car owners to earn extra money by renting out their vehicles, helping out someone who needs assistance with transportation.
Car owners can list their vehicles on Wheeliz at a recommended daily fee of €50 to €60 ($55 to $65 USD). The startup takes a 30% commission and provides insurance. In contrast, traditional car rental service Hertz tells Mashable its adapted cars go from €80 to €180 ($90 to $200) per day, depending on the type of car and number days you want to rent. One local French service charges €79 to €199 ($87-$220).
Inclusive and competitively priced, Wheeliz has now spread across many French cities, including Paris, Nantes and Bordeaux, with plans to expand internationally.
“I really believe there is an opportunity there for the collaborative economy and sharing economy to make mobility more accessible for wheelchair users,” de Vilmorin says.
De Vilmorin knows about obstructions to mobility firsthand, and has even blogged about her experiences living in Paris and the difficulties getting around, calling out everything from businesses with step-only entrances to inaccessible taxis.
She feels wheelchair users will understand the challenges people with disabilities face in finding a car, and will be eager to share their adapted cars in order to help the larger community.
“When you know how hard it is to move when you are in a wheelchair, I really believe you are ready to help and do your best to let the user use your own car so [they] can be free to travel,” she says.
Wheeliz currently has 120 cars listed with 900 registered users — including people from other countries who are using the site to plan trips to France.
As CEO of Wheeliz, currently working with a small team of a CTO and a business developer, de Vilmorin wants to create a global network of adapted cars for people who need them — and that means expanding.
The company is considering hiring its own drivers and may also launch a smartphone app, though de Vilmorin says these plans aren’t priorities at the moment. Trips in adapted cars, after all, are usually planned in advance, she explains, unlike the on-demand nature of ridesharing apps — but she hasn’t ruled it out.
The sharing economy is very active in France, with car-sharing and peer-to-peer (P2P) services like BlaBlaCar and Drivy. But U.S. giant Uber has faced some challenges in France in recent years, with opposition from the taxi sector over unfair competition, leading to violent protests in Paris. Authorities are now trying to level the playing field between old and new services.
Uber itself has been criticized for not being accessible to people with disabilities, and has even been questioned by the Massachusetts attorney-general over accessibility. However, it recently launched UberASSIST, a service with drivers specially trained in both sensitivity and handling mobility aids, and has introduced visual features in its app for deaf drivers.
At the moment, de Vilmorin doesn’t believe Wheeliz will encounter any of its own legal challenges.
“When you want to drive a person in a wheelchair in France, you have to pass a test or [get] certification. It’s the only regulatory thing we have to deal with,” she says.
Philippe Portier, a partner at French law firm JeantetAssociés, confirms that Wheeliz is unlikely to face “any particular stringent legal issues.” Beyond providing insurance, which Wheeliz and many other P2P companies do, the business is unregulated, he says.
Still, de Vilmorin says legal hurdles shouldn’t be a deterrent in tackling disability problems.
“I believe the world of startups and innovation is still disconnected from the needs of disabled people,” she says. “To me, it is essential to create and build a sustainable sharing community dedicated to the mobility problem.”