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Semi-automated Corvette C7 gets quadriplegic racecar driver back behind the wheel


May 8, 2014

This Corvette C7 Stingray is different than most in that its driver is quadriplegic and is driving via a semiautomated system (Photo: Ball Aerospace)

This Corvette C7 Stingray is different than most in that its driver is quadriplegic and is driving via a semiautomated system (Photo: Ball Aerospace)

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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.

Source: Ball Aerospace, Arrow SAM Project

About the Author
Heidi Hoopes Heidi measures her life with the motley things she's done in the name of scientific exploration. While formally educated in biology and chemistry, informally she learns from adventures and hobbies with her family. Her simple pleasures in life are finding turtles while jogging and obsessively winnowing through her genetic data. All articles by Heidi Hoopes

Whilst the chances of self-driving cars getting past the prototype stage are slimmer than those of pilotless aircraft being a allowed to carry human passengers, this technology might - just might - enable some disabled people to provide the inevitable minimum level of human supervision for when things go wrong, (which they will, because they can). This would then allow them to obtain the independence the rest of us take for granted, but whether it would be affordable is another matter.

Mel Tisdale

I think that is really cool. What a thrill it will be for the driver to be able to navigate a vehicle again.


head tilts for acceleration and steering well i am a bit worried about cornering. well it's only the start lets hope they will improve it

Kong Ben

Ready-to-intervene passenger or not, I bet the first time the car gets tapped from the rear by another driver (part and parcel of driving) would get a bit exciting! Apart from even a small impact shifting the driver's head around, what about the "WTF" factor? i.e. trying to look behind him to see what or who tapped his car. The steering might get a bit erratic!

The Skud
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