By now the world has heard of driverless cars, but how about a car that is driven by a quadriplegic, only controlled by head movements and breath? Not only is this vehicle a reality, it was created right here in Colorado.
The technology is named SAM, short for Semi-Autonomous Motor Vehicle, but not coincidentally, also a nod to former race-car driver Sam Schmidt. Schmidt has inspired engineers, software developers, and mechanics with his desire to get back behind the wheel after a racing crash left him paralyzed.
Schmidt was Rookie of the Year in 1995 when he debuted his racing career in the Hooters circuit at the age of 31. In 1997, Schmidt first raced in the Indianapolis 500. By 1999 he won his first Indianapolis Racing League event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and ended the year fifth in IRL series standings. In January of 2000 during a training run for the Indy Racing League, Schmidt hit a wall backwards at 160 miles per hour, damaging several vertebrae and leaving him without the use of his arms and legs.
Thanks to an out of the blue call from Arrow Electronics, Schmidt is once again behind the wheel. The company proposed a vehicle retrofit that Schmidt could control. He jumped at the chance. This aspect of the SAM Project, SAM 1.0 was a Colorado based collaboration between hometown firms, Arrow Electronics, Ball Aerospace, and the US Air Force Research Laboratory, along with Schmidt’s racing team, Schmidt Peterson Motor Sports and Falci Adaptive Motorsports.
By May of 2014, the team realized their dream and shocked the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crowd when Schmidt drove four demonstration laps at speeds just shy of 100 miles per hour. When the race was over, Schmidt took to the track again, this time reaching 107 miles per hour. An NBC News post drive interview with Schmidt revealed his euphoria, “Basically having to rely on other people to do 99 percent of what I do, you know the ability to get in that car, take control and do whatever I want to do is just unbelievable.”
The project’s second phase, SAM 2.0, enhanced technology to enable driving on less predictable road courses. This time around, Arrow partnered with Freescale Semiconductor, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Schmidt’s new non-profit, Conquer Paralysis Now. The modified technology allowed Schmidt to drive one demonstration lap on the 2 mile street course in Long Beach, Calif. in 2015. Sam and SAM delighted race fans with the track test including a 180 degree hairpin turn and top speed of 50 miles per hour. In an interview with NBC News after the trial run, Schmidt was thrilled, “It just makes me feel normal. I’m just in control where I had not been for so long.”
In many ways, the SAM technology integrated into the 2014 Corvette Stingray is even more unique and advanced than that developed for driverless cars. Like driverless cars, SAM is rife with computing technology connected to cameras, sensors and a GPS unit. However, in the modified Corvette, helmet mounted cameras and vehicle mounted sensors are controlled by the subtle head movements of the driver. Schmidt simply looks in the direction he wants to drive and tilts his head. Acceleration and deceleration are accomplished by either blowing or sucking into a straw built into the driving helmet. Even unwanted head commands like sneezes can be detected by the computer system. Thus complete control of a race car by someone who never thought he would drive again.
In preliminary tests, Arrow Electronics engineer, Andrew Dawes rides shotgun, able to take control of the vehicle in case of a technological failure or user error. However, at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, a great deal of trust needed to be built between the two men.
Racing is in the Schmidt bloodline. Schmidt’s father Marv was an accomplished driver who crashed while leading a 300 mile race in Baja, Calif. Marv’s accident temporarily paralyzed his right arm and leg and he was left unable to speak. His left thigh is permanently paralyzed. After his father’s accident, Sam’s driving aspirations were shelved out of safety concerns, but he couldn’t be kept out of the driver’s seat for long and a 31-year-old Indy race car driver was born. Little did Sam know that he would follow in his father’s footsteps in both racing and crashing with paralyzing results.
Still, the Schmidt’s power on. Besides getting back in the driver’s seat, and serving as an owner and operator of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Schmidt has also given ample time to his new non-profit, Conquer Paralysis Now. He believes that with enough money, he could find an end to quadriplegia within ten years. Using connections in the world of race car racing, Schmidt holds an annual event every May surrounding the Indianapolis 500 race. Team owners, drivers and supporters in the medical and therapeutic community attend the gala which generates hundreds of thousands of dollars for research. In order to reach the non-profit’s goal of ending paralysis within ten years, numerous grants are provided to research institutions every year to advance the cause. For more information on the Conquer Paralysis Foundation, see www.conquerparalysisnow.org.
No goals seem too lofty for Schmidt. He wants to get his driver’s license and walk his daughter down the aisle when she gets married.
In a SAM press release, Arrow Electronics CEO Michael Long said, “Arrow is committed to developing technology to help change people’s lives. Our partners and extraordinary engineers continue to reach for innovation excellence, and Sam Schmidt’s accomplishment is another strong example of our commitment to working five years out.”
Arrow Electronics is a Centennial, Colorado based Fortune 500 firm providing electronic components for industrial and commercial uses. Arrow partners with suppliers and customers in over 50 countries around the world. Under the corporate mantra of Five Years Out, Arrow is looking to continually innovate. An example of balance between, “possibility and practicality” is the SAM project, designed to harness the power of technology and enhance mobility for the disabled. More information about Arrow Electronics and SAM is available at www.arrow.com/sam.