On Saturday, May 13, famed race car driver Mario Andretti will be back on the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, hell be racing one guy: Sam Schmidt, a quadriplegic race car driver, in semi-autonomous cars.
Schmidt was paralyzed from the neck down in a racing accident in 2000. Since 2014, hes been working with Arrow Electronics to develop custom-made semi-autonomous Corvette race cars. Things seem to be going well for Schmidt in his new racing career, as he lapped Indy last year 152 mph, averaged 55 mph in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb with racer Robbie Unser as navigator, and was the first in the nation to receive a drivers license for semi-autonomous driving. And the SAM car, as its known, was upgraded to a supercharged Z06 Corvette with 650 horsepower.
Schmidt uses an advanced human-machine interface (HMI) developed by Arrow to drive the car. He controls the steering, brakes, and throttle using a tube he breathes into and movements of his head that are captured by cameras. This is the same system Andretti will use in the head-to-head race on Saturday.
Andretti will actually be in SAM 2.0, Schmidts old Corvette Stingray. Its been upgraded to use the same systems as SAM 3.0, the Corvette Z06, and things like the throttle response have been adjusted to compensate for the power outputs of the cars. Andretti has spent a few days this week learning to use the HMI with the tube and head movements.
Mario just hopped out of that car. Were at practice right now, said Will Pickard, the chief engineer on the SAM project, in a trackside phone interview on Thursday. Hes grinning ear to ear.
Andretti has been more than a good sport about the competition; hes taken it as seriously as he does any race. When he showed up to practice on Wednesday a day earlier than the SAM team expected hed been reading about SAMs HMI and watching videos of Schmidt. Hes done his homework, Pickard said.
Marios one of the best whos ever been behind a steering wheel, Pickard added. Now hes having to concentrate so hard. He hopped out just exhausted yesterday, but he was going 100 mph. He picked up driving with the HMI really fast. He spent most of the day driving completely with his head. The system does require stamina; not even Schmidt is up for 20 laps all out yet, Pickard said.
Not that Schmidt is any slouch as a racer, even as a quadriplegic. The injury didnt change Sam in terms of his fundamental talent; he just didnt have a car to drive, Pickard said. So Arrow worked to develop a car he could really race. Weve gotten to the point where Sam is driving the car to its physical limit. Were burning through tires; hes hitting apexes and pulling gs.
Unlike most autonomous car projects, Arrow is about trying to put a driver back into the drivers seat, Pickard explained. SAM 3.0 is a singular project, but the technology translates to real-world applications for drivers with limited mobility.
If youre the betting type and youd like to kick a little to charity, you can text SAM or MARIO to 50555. Each text, regardless of who wins on May 13, will donate $10 to Conquer Paralysis Now.
Edited to fix a typo; Schmidts accident was in 2000, not 2017.