If you think this is just another "electric mini-car" post, think again. Yes, the Kenguru is a small, electric-power auto, but that's not what makes it interesting. The visible innovation of the Kenguru is the target market: people in wheelchairs; its deeper value is what it suggests for the future of material production: "Long Tail Manufacturing."
Vehicles for people in wheelchairs aren't terribly unusual, but they're nearly always a modification of an otherwise stock car (typically a van, to allow room for the wheelchair). Such vans are often ungainly and extremely fuel-inefficient, and the modifications to allow wheelchair access are expensive. The Kenguru, designed by Hungarian rehabilitative services company Rehab Ltd., is in most respects the exact opposite from the modified van: small, efficient, and built from the ground up to fit the needs of wheelchair users. The Kenguru was a top nominee for the 2005 INDEX design award in the "Community" category (won by Architecture for Humanity).
The concept is simple:
The car’s interior space has no front seat – just a space built to house the driver’s own wheelchair so all he/she has to do is simply roll in through the extra large car doors and into position. The wheelchair locks into place, within easy reach of the car’s controls which are centred around a joystick.
The designer's goal was to create a vehicle that would be easily used by disabled drivers, with minimal maintenance and reliable operation, all on a platform that used an "environmentally sound energy source." Like most electric mini-cars, it has a limited range -- up to about 60 kilometers, or roughly 35 miles -- and travels at speeds limited to surface streets -- up to 40 km/h, or roughly 25 miles per hour. A Kenguru wouldn't replace the modified van so much as complement it, providing a much more maneuverable and efficient mode of local transportation.
I'm always happy to see designers pay attention to the needs of the physically disabled, as they're a woefully-underserved community, but one that will grow in number as more of us live longer lives. Moreover, the kinds of design thinking that goes into adaptive technologies very often has immediate benefits for the broader populace, either for economy-of-scope reasons (as with curb cuts at corners, meant for wheelchairs but useful for people pushing baby strollers, handcarts, etc.) or because having to re-evaluate product design can trigger new insights. I wouldn't expect the Kenguru to take off for non-disabled buyers, but I could certainly see its design ideas being applied more broadly in mini-vans and other family-focused vehicles.
This could also be seen as a harbinger of something we may soon be seeing more of: "Long Tail Manufacturing," to coin a phrase. The "Long Tail" is a concept originated by Wired editor Chris Anderson, referring to the lengthy "low numbers" end of a power-law curve. In a Long Tail world, the growing number of tools making it possible to both gain access to obscure sources of ideas and serve the needs of small minorities results in a greater proliferation of ideas and a strengthening of sub- or even "micro-" cultures. Long Tail Manufacturing, then, would be a form of industrial production aimed not at mass markets, but micro-markets.
Just as the Long Tail of ideas and media interests is enabled by widespread networked information tools, Long Tail Manufacturing will be enabled by the proliferation of fabrication concepts, from "DIY Culture" to fabrication-by-email to 3D printing. We're not entirely there yet, but the rapid decline and increasing ease of home production tools will get us there soon. When nanofactories and molecular fabrication technologies come to pass, in a decade or so, the move to the Long Tail Manufacturing world will be complete, and we'll be living in the Fabber Future.
Long Tail Manufacturing overlaps with but is not identical to "mass customization," a concept getting a lot of play during the dot-com era. Mass customization was primarily a form of personalized skins over standardized structures, so that the individual look-and-feel of a product may vary from person to person, but the underlying function would (typically) remain the same. The Long Tail Manufacturing era will have some of that, too, especially as home designers swap ideas and digital blueprints, but its main strength will come from the ability to create something particular to the needs of the user and produce it at a reasonable cost.
(Note: this doesn't mean that everything people use will be unique and printed out from one's home fabber; there will continue to be plenty of objects that can most easily and usefully be mass-produced. What will change are those kinds of objects and devices for which individuals have particular needs not readily met by the mass market.)
The Long Tail Manufacturing world remains a ways off; the Kenguru is (ostensibly) available now. For a variety of reasons, I wouldn't expect to see many (or any) on US roads, but in societies where micro-cars are already in service -- that is, much of Europe -- the Kenguru may soon be an occasional sight. If you do see one, give it a wave; the driver has greater independence than before, and he or she is riding an early indicator of what the next decade could hold.