What might it take to put a former Indy Racecar League driver back in the driver’s seat after a racing accident renders him quadriplegic? Perhaps a customized Corvette C7 Stingray, decked out by military and industry engineers to allow Sam Schmidt, now an owner of his own Indy team, to take back the metaphorical wheel.
The vehicle, complete with specialized navigation, braking, and safety systems including a brake that is applied by biting, officially debuts at the 2014 Indianapolis 500 festivities with Schmidt behind the wheel. Doctors may have told Schmidt that he would never move his arms or legs again, but with a recent demo of the SAM Project’s Corvette, that doesn't mean he can't drive.
The SAM Project, short for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar, seems initially simple to drive. Schmidt tilts his head to steer, incrementally bites down on the brake to slow, and accelerates by tipping his head backwards. Infrared cameras located on the dash track markers on the driver's hat to intercept head movements, with a CPU translating the movements into commands sent to actuators on the brakes, accelerator, and steering wheel.
The project is a collaboration of several different companies, a nonprofit, and the military. Ball Aerospace identified Schmidt’s abilities as a driver and matched those to systems that would provide an optimal arrangement of human and machine control. Arrow Electronics, a supplier of industrial and commercial electronic components, developed the electronics systems, with all components except for the mouth brake available off the shelf.
The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) collaborated on the project as it has long been interested in how humans interact with autonomous systems in airplanes. The nonprofit involved, Falci Adaptive Motorsports, was created to extend the range of recreational and sporting activities enjoyed by those with spinal cord injuries.
While some safety measures for the project represent traditional human oversight, such as providing another driver in the passenger seat with a set of controls to intervene if necessary, GPS provides an interesting feature for the driving experience. Monitoring the edge of the track, it creates “virtual curbs” a meter from the edge. If the driver goes beyond this limit, the system warns the driver, and eventually nudges the car back on track.
In the recent test of the Corvette, Schmidt drove an average of 83 mph (133 kph) and has a chance to beat that speed when the car debuts officially at the Indy 500 track later this month.
Unfortunately, due to an embargo until the official racing event, video is not yet available of the test drive.