Semi-Autonomous Motorcar Serves Drivers with Severely Limited Mobility
Attending the WIRED Cafe at CES, I was delighted to see IndyCar icon Sam Schmidt in attendance. Sam has been a friend since the late 1990’s when I was fortunate enough to race a support series car with the Treadway Indy Racing League Team. Sam was Treadway’s lead IndyCar pilot when he sustained a C-3/4/5 spinal cord injury while practicing for the 2000 season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway. The accident left Sam paralyzed from the neck down.
Sam has not only thrived in the sport as an Indy Racing League (now IndyCar) owner, he has made significant impact in the effort to conquer paralysis for the millions of people throughout the world who are or may become paralyzed. He created the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation which raises needed funds supporting medical research, innovative equipment used for rehabilitation and quality-of-life issues. One of the projects Sam supports is the DRIVEN NeuroRecovery Center, a multidisciplinary organization with a holistic approach to wellness see (www.conquerparalysisnow.org).
It didn’t take long for Sam and me to reminisce about our team history when Sam casually mentioned that he was back in the car and focused on his speedway license test in Las Vegas! As if Sam’s story could not become more amazing, I learned that Sam’s lead sponsor for the 2019 IndyCar season is Arrow Electronics (www.Arrow.com). Together they were engineering a Corvette Stingray equipped with advanced electronics creating the Arrow Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) project. Sam shared his recent activity driving the Arrow car on track at speed using state-of-the-art technology:
- Infrared camera system: sensors mounted on Schmidt’s hat connect to infrared cameras mounted on the dashboard that detect his head-tilt motions in order to steer.
- Sip/puff system: using breath control, Schmidt can accelerate and brake the vehicle by sucking or blowing into a tube attached to a Freescale-integrated pressure sensor.
- Computer system: a central processor from Freescale collects signals from the camera and sip/puff system to control the car’s acceleration, braking and steering.
- GPS technology: a guidance system keeps the car within 1.5 meters from the edge of the track, providing Schmidt with a virtual envelope about 10 meters wide within which he steers.
- Safety system: a set of software algorithms ensure the commands sent to the computer system are real and defined within the vehicle’s limits.
- IoT connectivity: an Arrow 4G-LTE IoT gateway running Windows 10 Enterprise on an Intel server collects, streams and stores API-accessible data in Microsoft’s Azure cloud service.
I guess the racing bug never really goes away for any of us. Before the evening came to a close we made plans to meet the next afternoon at SpeedVegas to put the SAM on track and for me to ride along.
The Arrow SAM car is quite amazing. The control systems are elegant and the safety systems are robust. That said, it has been years since I strapped into a five-point racing harness and I have always felt a bit tense as passenger. The wry smile on Sam’s face when he fired up the Vette motor didn’t help my nerves.
I can attest the SAM Corvette is a true racecar and the precision electronic controls provided by the camera system as well as the sip-and-puff devise are incredible. SpeedVegas is a twisty track with a decent straight; Sam drove every inch of it. The g-force was impressive. Riding at 150 mph towards a sharp end corner knowing the brakes were dependent on a deep inhale had me a bit on edge.
The photos here include a picture of me with Sam and the car as well as the process of lifting Sam into the driver’s seat. I was fortunate that 2019 lead driver for the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team (www.spmindycar.com), James Hinchcliffe, was also at track that day. It was nice to see how far James has advanced in the sport since we raced against each other in the IMSA Pro Formula Mazda Championship (2004 – 2005).
Perhaps the most interesting part of the experience for me was the post-drive debrief where I had the opportunity to share my thoughts with both Sam and the Arrow engineering team. Sam explained how the adaption to the new control system was not only physical but also mental. The SAM requires a point-and-shoot approach as the car literally goes where you look. This is far different than driving under normal racing conditions where you are always looking ahead or through the corners. With the SAM technology, each corner is more challenging that it would otherwise be and therefore my friend’s skills were all that more impressive.
As precise as the steering system showed, the sip-and-puff acceleration/breaking system — which works so well at wheel chair speeds — leaves me wanting for a better solution on track. We discussed the newest technology used to pilot drones based on EEG brain computer interface (BCI) allowing human-machine interaction without any moving elements. Perhaps someday Sam will accelerate, brake and even steer the car based only on neural activity patterns.
I am anxious for winter to pass quickly. Sam has invited me back to the track. Indy is just a short drive from Chicago and the date is now circled on my calendar.