Irwin Gill missed being able to operate a manual transmission when he lost use of his legs. So he figured out a way to get that back
Wall Street Journal / A.J. Baime / Aug. 18, 2020
Irwin Gill, 23, a recent graduate of California State University at Fullerton living in Long Beach, Calif., on his 2005 BMW 530i with hand controls, as told to A.J. Baime.
In November 2017, I had a motorcycle accident and sustained a spinal-cord injury that affected my legs. I was discharged from rehab in January 2018, and a month later, I bought a hand-control system by a company called QuicStick so I could operate a car with an automatic transmission. I had to go to the DMV and take a test to make sure I could operate the car safely.
I am a car enthusiast and one of the things I missed was driving a manual-transmission car (which has three pedals—clutch, brake, throttle), because I no longer had the use of my legs. With time, my left leg started to regain function, but not my right. I would sit in my friends’ cars and work the clutch pedal for 30 minutes with my left leg, to strengthen it. Finally I decided to buy a car.
My requirements were specific: I’m 6-foot-3 and my spine is fused with metal, so I needed a roomy car to be comfortable. I needed the interior to be big enough to hold my wheelchair. I wanted a four-door sedan with a manual transmission and rear-wheel drive, and I didn’t want to spend more than $4,000. I found a 2005 BMW 5 Series in October 2018 that was perfect. I could use my left foot on the clutch, and use the QuicStick hand control to work the gas and brake.
For me there was one problem. When I used to drive a manual, I would do something called heel-and-toe downshifting. Let’s say you’re in gear and you’re downshifting while braking. You have your left foot on the clutch, and with your right foot, you’ve got your toe on the brake while you use your heel to blip the gas for more smooth shifting (some drivers position their heel and toe the opposite way). Modern cars do this automatically but heel-and-toe downshifting was for decades a common way of driving, especially for competitive drivers.
As a mechanical-engineering student, I was a part of Cal State Fullerton’s Formula SAE club. We conceived and built our own car and competed against other schools in tests of engineering. This program gave me hands-on experience on how to take classroom learning and apply it to building components that function in the real world. I spent a month thinking about how to build a hand-control system that would enable me to heel-and-toe shift without the use of my right foot, using the QuicStick hand control system I already had as a starting point. Then, during winter break a couple months after I bought the BMW, I spent a week in the Formula SAE lab building it. The build required a tremendous amount of practical problem-solving I wouldn’t have been able to handle if not for my experience with Formula SAE.
The system now works so that I can use my palm and thumb with the hand-control system in place of my heel and toe on the pedals. I have used it to drive nearly 30,000 miles and I have had two track days, at Willow Springs International Raceway and Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. I have had zero issues. I also designed the system so that my father can drive the BMW normally if he wants to.
Now that I have graduated, I have a job offer, but due to the pandemic, it got pushed back a few months. So in the meantime I am designing and building a bicycle that has special wheels to enable me to ride it with one leg. And whenever I want to get in my BMW and drive, I can. Like me, the car keeps on going.