Technology is a great thing, as evidenced by Sam Schmidt, 49, on Tuesday. Schmidt, paralyzed from the shoulders down since a race crash in January of 2000, first drove the highly modified 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray last month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was a milestone for him, being the first time that he had driven in more than 14 years.
On Tuesday, he satisfied his desire to be behind the wheel again by driving it on the 7,100-foot-long runway next to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
Being able to drive this car made me feel unbelievably normal again,” Schmidt commented.
Less than a year ago, the SAM (semi-autonomous motorcar) project was started. The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson, Arrow Electronics, Inc. and Falci Adaptive Motorsports (both of Englewood, Colo.), Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Beavercreek and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in Indianapolis all worked together to create the SAM demonstration.
Schmidt didn’t want a car that drove itself; he wanted a car that he could control. A specially designed baseball cap with eight small silver reflective spheres was worn by Schmidt and four infrared cameras were placed around the dashboard to reflect light and detect his head movements, which in turn, controlled the sports car.
When Sam moves his head back and forth, the car speed increases. When he tilts his head to the right, the car diverts to that direction, and when he bites down on a sensor in his mouth, the car slows or stops. With just head movements, Schmidt is able to control this fast performance car.
But Schmidt didn’t just get in this high performance car and drive off. Hours upon hours were spent in a virtual simulator, teaching him how to control the vehicle with his movements. At one point in the stimulator, he ‘drove’ at 211mph.
During the demonstrations, a co-driver is in the seat next to him, ready to take over if needed and a GPS monitor keeps the car on track. Schmidt’s biometrics are also continuously monitored, recording his heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature and respiration. Safety is a big concern and every precaution has been made. “The whole thing was designed with safety in mind the whole time,” Glen Geisen, Ball Aerospace chief technologist on the project said, “Sam’s abilities are a big part of this, too.”
Schmidt, founder of the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, was increasingly frustrated with pace of finding new limb functions but is confident that the demonstration shows that it is possible.
“If we get the right pieces, get the right minds working on it … I think we can solve this problem, too,” he said.
Another demonstration is scheduled this month on the Indy track where Schmidt thinks he’ll reach speeds of 80 mph.