When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Rolling
On August 15, 1999, Liz Soden was behind the wheel of her family's truck, her husband Brad in the passenger seat and their three sons in the backseat. Suddenly, one of the tires blew out, and the truck was thrown into an embankment. The boys came out of the accident relatively unscathed, and Brad broke his leg. Liz, however, wasn't nearly as lucky. She broke her back and was paralyzed from the waist down.
The family's medical insurance provided them with a standard wheelchair that probably have worked for most people. But for an active, outdoorsy family like the Sodens, who enjoy hikes in the mountainside, the chair simply would not do. Rather than accept their fate, the Sodens decided to take matters into their own hands.
Brad got to work creating a better wheelchair for his on-the-go wife. A plumber and fireman with no formal engineering training, he said the design process involved a lot of trial and error and "lots of beers and curse words in my garage." But Brad kept at it, and along the way, inspiration set in: What if he replaced the standard wheels with tank treads, the ones he saw as an infantryman in Operation Desert Storm? He created a prototype, found a robotics company to partner with and ended up with half all-terrain vehicle, half wheelchair that can reach up to 15 miles per hour.
It's too cool to be called an "ATV wheelchair," so the Sodens named it the Tankchair. The chairs, which retail for $15,000 to $18,000, can be custom made with bells and whistles that fit the unique needs of their owners. For example, the Sodens have reportedly outfitted models with everything from a built-in text-to-speech speaker system for a vocally impaired customer, external site, opens in a new window to an LED Incapacitator that induces vomiting using pulsating lights for a police officer.
Although theirs is still a small business — Brad does much of the customization work in the family garage — the Sodens have already attracted some high-profile fans. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and the NFL have all helped the Tankchair reach prominence.