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Whill’s 4WD Model M makes campgrounds and parks wheelchair-accessible

All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive takes cars and trucks onto terrain untouchable by their two-wheel-drive counterparts, and Japanese personal mobility startup Whill injects that concept into its high-tech wheelchairs. Whill says that its new Model M can even venture off road onto dirt roads and gravel trails, all the way to the campground.

Thanks to a 3-inch ground clearance and a 4WD system that links the front and back wheels, the Model M can move on uneven terrain and even on low-traction surfaces, such as light snow. Pulleys that share the driving power enable the wheelchair to still move forward (and backward) even if one of the wheels is off the ground.

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Those who are adventurous can take the Model M to places previously impossible, but officially Whill defers to the National Park Service to define the outdoor spots that are accessible. The Model M’s range should also be enough for all but the longest of walks and hikes — up to 15 miles on a full charge of its dual 12V, 50Ah sealed lead acid batteries.

Whill hit the U.S. market in 2014 with a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped to launch the Model A, which brought innovations such as remote control via a smartphone app that allows the user to operate the personal mobility device without sitting on it. In fact, the Model A’s futuristic design was so visually appealing that the filmmakers behind Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice approached Whill to feature it in the movie.

Unlike the Model A, the Model M includes medical necessities such as arm supports, pressure relief handles, and different back support options, which also means it is now classified by the FDA as a medical device prescribable by doctors.

“FDA clearance of Model M represents a major milestone for our team and our customers in the U.S. health care system,” says Whill’s co-founder and CEO Satoshi Sugie. “We look forward to working with physicians in the United States by providing them with new modern wheelchair option for their patients.”

Perhaps even more critical is Whill’s plan to work further with the U.S. health care system so the Model M can be recognized by insurance such as Medicare. At around $14,000, insurance coverage will be the way many can gain access to a Whill wheelchair.

Whill spokesperson Chris Koyama told Digital Trends that the design of both the Model A and M benefit users beyond just function. “A common feedback is how it’s changing the way people interact. With conventional wheelchairs, they were asked if they needed help due to the medical look of the chair. With the Model M, people ask about the device like you ask someone about a nice car they drive or a cool edition of sneakers someone is wearing,” said Koyama. “The conversation is completely different.”

Daniel Minx, a tester of a Model M demo unit, relayed his experience: “No one sees me, at least from my perspective, as someone with a disability. They’re drawn to the unique design of Model M. When I’m using my Permobil, people ask me why I’m in a chair or what’s my disability. That doesn’t happen with Model M. Instead, I have more positive attention.”

Whill will be leading free two-hour test drive hikes in the Los Angeles area with the Model M starting September.

*Updated by Marcus Yam on August 25, 2016 with additional quotes and test drive information.