People who are paralyzed at a high cervical level or who cannot use their arms for another reason may soon benefit from a promising development that could open up the world of driving for them. The breakthrough is the result of an effort by Arrow Electronics to develop a system that would allow quadriplegics to control all aspects of driving using only their heads. The result is the SAM Car, which stands for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar.
Arrow Electronics’ vision went beyond the basic operation of a car. The company wanted a system that could control a car in all driving situations, including in traffic, on winding roads and even at extremely high speeds. They believed that speed was important in order to show the safety of the system, as well as to generate interest in the project and momentum for future applications.
This is surprising, since Arrow Electronics is not in the business of building automobiles. As an international company that provides technological solutions and electronic components to customers around the world, this particular project was unlike anything they had undertaken in the past. Its plan was to use existing components, including a high-speed automobile that is available to everyone, and to put them together in a manner that would accomplish its objective.
The initial team, consisting of eight engineers who worked for Arrow and three from a tech partner company, set to work in 2013. Today there are three Arrow engineers working on the project, aided by contractors when needed, and another critical team member — the driver. When it became clear that the team required the addition of someone who was quadriplegic and also a successful racing driver, the obvious choice was Sam Schmidt.
Schmidt has driven race cars for most of his life, but his successful racing career was cut short as a result of an accident during a practice session for an IndyCar race in 2000. A C3-4 spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, but did not prevent him from remaining involved in the sport. In 2001 he established Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and in 2013 he partnered with Ric Peterson to form Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Those teams have campaigned multiple cars in the Indy Lights and IndyCar racing series.
Prior to Schmidt’s involvement with the SAM car, he had been firmly committed to the search for a cure or treatment for spinal cord injury that could allow others who are paralyzed to improve function. He formed the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation in 2000, which was renamed Conquer Paralysis Now in 2014. Since its inception, the foundation has raised and awarded over $10 million in the form of grants. “The foundation has invested heavily in everything from stem cell research to exoskeletons to rehabilitation techniques,” says Schmidt. “All with the goal of solving as many problems as possible that face the community.”
For Joe Verrengia, Arrow’s global director of corporate social responsibility, Schmidt’s racing talent and knowledge, coupled with the mission of his foundation, was impressive. “Once we met Sam, it instantly became a partnership of ideas and skills. While Arrow had the SAM Car idea prior to meeting Sam, the actual car and technology package were developed with him. This has evolved every year. We don’t develop the technology in our own lab and just ask him to drive it. The development process continues to be a joint effort.” Schmidt points out that being a partner on the team has made the entire process go smoothly. Within four months he was driving in a simulator, and soon after was driving the car on the track.
The SAM Car is a modified 2016 Corvette Z06 that is outfitted with control systems that can be operated by the driver using the tilt of a head to turn, sip and puff for acceleration and braking, plus voice commands for accessories like turn signals, wipers, etc. Unlike the self-driving vehicles that appear on the verge of being unleashed on our roadways fairly soon, the SAM vehicle is controlled completely by the driver and not under computer control.
Being able to be back in control of a vehicle after his injury has made a big difference in Schmidt’s life. “This situation reminds me of being an IndyCar driver again. I provide ideas of how to make the drive system intuitive and safe so that we can go faster. I am surrounded by a team from Arrow that takes that information and makes it happen. I can’t tell you how awesome it feels to be a driver again!”
In the not too distant future, the Arrow team plans to allow other drivers with disabilities to take a drive in the SAM Car or one set up with a similar control system. Perhaps more importantly, Verrengia says that the team is already thinking beyond the SAM project. “While SAM stands for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar, in the future we are leaning towards changing it to Semi-Autonomous Mobility as we look to pursue other human-to-machine interface technologies beyond the car that will help the disabled community,” he says.
Furthermore, Arrow Electronics has not patented the technology it developed, and will share it with other organizations that would use it to help people with disabilities re-enter the workforce. The company will assist those developers by selling them the components needed to complete their projects.
Some of the desirable long-term results mentioned by the SAM project team would include applications so that people with similar disabilities can work as shuttle or rideshare drivers, farm equipment operators or forklift drivers. For Schmidt “the goal is not only driving, but putting thousands back to work with this technology.” He also points out that “for disabled veterans, the ability to pay the mortgage and put food on the table will have an immense impact on their quality of life.”
The importance of rediscovering driving cannot be overestimated for those who may benefit from the SAM Car system. Schmidt has also driven the SAM Car on the streets of Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, allowing him to drive with his family in a car for the first time since his injury in 2000.
How the SAM Car Has Impacted Sam Schmidt’s Life
Since he started driving the SAM Car, Schmidt has …
• Driven the SAM Car at 152 mph around the oval track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
• Raced head to head with Mario Andretti on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
• Driven the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb course with a finish time of 15 minutes, which required negotiating a mountain road with precipitous drop-offs throughout the 12 miles and 156 turns to reach the 14,110-feet summit. While he was not entered in the race, his time was faster than more than 20 of the race competitors.
• Received a four-year renewal of the first semi-autonomous driver’s license issued by the state of Nevada.
• Driven the SAM Car at 192 mph on a runway at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada — a new speed record for a semi-autonomous vehicle — during the base’s 2017 Aviation Nation celebration.