What are the differences with power wheelchairs?

19 July 2018

Rear Wheel Mid wheel or Front Wheel Power chair
Power wheelchairs - Rear wheel drive, front wheel drive, or mid wheel drive?

A power wheelchair is a wheelchair that uses an electric motor and a battery instead of running on manual effort. Power chairs are usually operated by a joystick with which the user can manoeuvre the chair.

These types of wheelchairs are used for people with very limited mobility, such as quadriplegics or those who suffer from extreme fatigue when using a normal manual wheelchair. Advantages for using electric wheelchairs include that they are typically suitable for long distances, they can be manoeuvred in tight spaces and in most cases can be used on fairly rough terrain. Some styles are also foldable and can be transported easily in car boots or stored in away in cupboards.

These chairs are often customisable and offer a number of seating options for individual needs. One main selectable feature of a power wheelchair is the position of the drive wheels. The drive wheels of a power wheelchair are connected to the motors. They transmit force in order to cause the chair to move. These come in one of three options:

  • Rear wheel drive
  • Front wheel drive
  • Mid wheel drive

The choice of drive wheel position, like the other features, depends on the user’s needs and preferences. Each type is different with its own characteristics, advantages and disadvantages.


Rear Wheel Drive

A rear wheel drive (also called RWD) power wheelchair is one in which the drive wheels are located at the back of the chair. The biggest advantages of this type of wheelchair is that it offers the highest top speeds of all three types of chairs and it has the best performance at high speeds overall. This means that the chair remains stable and controlled at maximum speed. Additionally, it is quite stable overall and therefore handles rough terrain as well as steep slopes very well. However, one main disadvantage is that it has a larger turning radius and therefore requires a lot of space when turning a corner, unlike some of the other options. Nonetheless, for persons who require a larger and more powerful wheel chair and who will travel extensively outdoors, the RWD model can be preferable.

Front Wheel Drive

A front wheel drive (also called FWD) power wheelchair is one in which the drive wheels are located at the front of the chair. The biggest advantage of this type of wheelchair is its obstacle climbing abilities due to the position of its drive wheel. It also has good stability and is a design that is also often used with stand-up model wheel chairs, which is a powered chair that allows the driver to be in a standing or reclining position. However, speed is the main disadvantage with front wheel drive chairs as the chair can ‘fishtail’ at higher speeds. They can possibly lose traction when going uphill and may cause the driver to lose control. Therefore, the front wheel drive is not the most suitable configuration for steep or hilly terrain. Care needs to be taken when turning tight corners since the driver has to be mindful of the rear wheels. Overall, the FWD power wheelchair is most commonly used for smaller model power wheel chairs that are used predominantly for indoor purposes.

Mid Wheel Drive

A mid wheel drive power wheelchair (also called MWD) is one in which the drive wheels are positioned in the middle of the chair. The biggest advantage of this type of wheelchair is its ability to manoeuvre in tight spaces. It can turn a full circle on the spot because it rotates on its centre. Because there is an equal amount of chair at the front and back, this chair is very stable. Also, since the power comes from the centre of the vehicle, a mid wheel drive wheelchair can track across a side slope quite well. The mid wheel drive power chair is proving to be the chair of choice for users that are looking for a good all-round chair with excellent indoor and outdoor capabilities.  It is a very stable chair due to it typically having multiple wheels on the ground even on uneven terrain.



As discussed above, each type of drive wheel serves a different yet important purpose, given their individual characteristics and advantages and disadvantages. No type of wheelchair is better than the others in all regards. It truly depends on the user’s environment. It is, however, important to know each wheelchair’s capabilities in order to make the right choice when selecting the chair for individual requirements.

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