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After crashing during a practice lap at the Walt Disney World SpeedWay in Orlando former Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt was paralyzed from the waist down.
Nearly 16 years later, Schmidt was issued the nation’s first autonomous vehicle restricted driver’s license. After receiving the license from Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison on Wednesday, Schmidt took his modified black Corvette Z06 out for a spin using only the motion of his head, his breath and voice commands to control the vehicle.
“Presenting Sam Schmidt with the first autonomous vehicle driver’s license marks a turning point in our state and reinforces how fortunate I am to serve the people of Nevada—a state that values technologies and innovations that strengthen and improve our communities,” Lt. Gov. Hutchison said in a statement.
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The road to create this car was a long one.
In 2013, Arrow Electronics Inc. engineers and medical researchers began to work to create a Semi-Autonomous (SAM) car that could be driven at high speeds by quadriplegic race drivers only using head movements.
With the idea of using the driver’s head as the joystick, SAM 1.0 used a system of infrared cameras and sensors that track head movement to control the car. In the next version, the infrared cameras were upgraded to respond to the driver’s smaller head movements and added a mouth device to serve as the “pedal” for braking and accelerating. Voice commands are used to switch gears and turn the car on and off.
In the first year of production, Arrow personnel worked to integrate separate steering, acceleration and braking controls into one system.
Schmidt first drove the car on May 18, 2014, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and reached a speed of 97 mph. He didn’t qualify for the Indy 500, but he did meet his goal of driving again and inspired his family, team and fans by doing so.
In 2015, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles began working with Schmidt and Arrow to ensure that Nevada’s road regulations could be modified to legally allow Schmidt to drive the SAM car on public roads under restricted conditions.
“It’s been a privilege to work with the forward-looking officials in my home state of Nevada and with the great engineering team at Arrow Electronics to safely and responsibly advance autonomous vehicle technology,” Schmidt said. “I can’t even begin to explain just how much this provisional driver’s license, and the mobility and independence it represents, mean to me.”
Arrow Chairman, President and CEO Mike Long said he hopes the SAM car will continue to inspire to “innovate and dream big” in the same way Schmidt has.