Back in the Driver's Seat

Sam Schmidt always wanted to be a race car driver, following in the footsteps of legends like Mario Andretti. He began professionally racing stock cars in 1995 at the age of 31 and had his first Indy Racing League debut in 1997. Just three years later, tragedy struck.

During a practice lap at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Sam crashed, severely injuring his spinal cord and losing the use of his arms and legs. It was a heartbreaking end to a career that he loved—at least, that’s what many thought at the time.

But Sam persevered. In 2001, he founded Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a way to stay involved in the sport he loves, even as he dreamed of someday driving again. A little more than a decade later, Sam partnered with engineers at Arrow Electronics, an electronic component and computer products provider, to find a way to put him back in the driver’s seat.

The Arrow/SAM team recalls that the idea was to modify a car that could be safely driven at high speeds with head 
movements—thus making it possible for a quadriplegic like Sam to effectively ‘take the wheel’. Through sensors and cameras, they believed they could restore independence, control and a sense of accomplishment to a qualified disabled driver, thereby breaking down barriers and opening new physical and emotional horizons.

Sam and Arrow have succeeded beyond even their expectations with the Semi-Autonomous Motorcar otherwise known as SAM.

Making Headway

The first step in the SAM project was for the Arrow team to modify a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray to allow a qualified quadriplegic driver, namely Sam, to safely operate under racetrack conditions.

In version 1.0, developed in 2013/2014, the team relied on a system of infrared cameras and sensors that directly measure the motion of the head, gradually accelerating in increments of 10 mph. The following year, version 2.0 upgraded the infrared cameras to respond to the driver’s more nuanced head movements. Acceleration and braking were combined into a single mouth device, providing more realistic “pedal” response and improved transitions. With the mouth device, the driver could navigate tight turns left and right, even while driving up and down hills, found on more complex road course tracks.

Essentially, the driver puffed breath into a mouthpiece equipped with a pressure sensor, specifically selected to be sensitive enough to respond to the driver’s (Sam’s) input. The car responds directly via a drive-by-wire attached to the gas pedal. The gas pedal is depressed based on the amount of air pressure Sam created, giving him full control over acceleration—from a smooth gradual increase to a quick burst of speed.

On May 18, 2014, Sam drove a vehicle for the first time since his accident in 2000. As a competing driver at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he reached a top speed of 97 mph on his 10-mile run. While he did not qualify for the 2014 Indy 500, his incredible feat inspired his family, his team and millions of fans. A week later, he completed more laps at Indy, reaching a top speed of 107 mph.

The next year, Sam drove the twisty 1.9-mile road course at the Long Beach Grand Prix. The Arrow team had upgraded the car cameras with a wider field of view and sensors that were more sensitive and responsive to Sam’s motions, helping to give him more freedom at the controls and improve his racing line.

While it was working, it was not exactly what the Arrow engineers wanted. Maintaining attitude, heading, pitch, roll and yaw are vital for translating head movements to steering output when making course corrections—so they sought to incorporate a GPS/IMU system.