This will without a doubt be the “feel good” story of the week. It’s something that I wouldn’t have believed if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. I’m sure it’s common knowledge, but the term quadriplegic means that you have absolutely no use of anything from the neck down. It’s usually caused by severe trauma to the spinal cord and is unfortunately irreversible. That is exactly what happened to former Indycar champion, Sam Schmidt. But a company called Arrow Electronics has come up with a brilliant way of restoring Sam, and others like him, back to their former glory.
Back in 2001, Sam’s life changed forever when he suffered a ferocious crash at over 210mph that resulted in him no longer having use of his extremities and torso. According to many reports, it’s actually a miracle he managed to survive at all. But after being in motorsports most of his life, being behind the wheel of a high-performance car is what brought him the most joy. And it first appeared as if he would never be able to enjoy his passion ever again. But then Arrow Electronics stepped up and created something so special and so futuristic that you’d think it was a Hollywood film with all sorts of special effects. They came up with a way that Sam could drive a car under his complete control, using only his head.
I realize how crazy that sounds, but Arrow managed to come up with a system that involves numerous cameras, sensors, and the computing power to make millions of calculations in a fraction of a second. This has allowed Sam to get back to doing what he loves to do. Once they developed the technology, they had to apply it to a car, and what better choice than a C7 Corvette Z06, a car Sam has always had an interest in.
To try and explain the details of how it all works would take a level of education far beyond what I’m capable of. But to get a basic understanding, 100% of the car’s functions are controlled with Sam’s head. Using high-tech cameras mounted where you would normally see a sun visor, the car is able to monitor Sam’s head and what he’s looking at. So he wants to make a right-hand turn, he turns his head to the right. Same applies for turning left. And it’s incredibly precise which it would have to be when you consider the countless minor corrections you make while driving a car, and probably don’t even realize it. If he makes even the slightest movement one-way or the other, the car instantly follows. It’s truly amazing.
But it gets better because like I said, complete control of the car. Which means Sam also controls the throttle and brakes, only he doesn’t use head movements. For this aspect of the car, he uses a tube that he puts in his mouth. When he wants to give it throttle, he blows into the tube. And when it comes time to hit the brakes, he sucks on the tube like you would a straw. Like the steering, this system is incredibly precise and sensitive. If he blows softly it’s only a small amount of throttle, but the harder he blows, the faster he goes. Same thing for the braking, the harder he sucks, the more stopping power he has.
The ultimate goal of the project was to get Sam back on the track in a car that was safe enough for him to do so. Which is why the system is so sensitive and responsive. It ended up working so well on the track they decided to set it up for street use. And now Sam has the very first semi-autonomous drivers license in the country which allows him to legally take his futuristic car out on the road amongst other drivers. To give you an idea of just how well this system works, Sam actually used it to make a run up the famous Pike Peak hill climb which consists of more than 156 turns and is almost 13 miles long. The only problems he had was running out of breath by the time he made it to the top. Which makes perfect sense, just try to play “suck and blow” for 15 minutes straight as your climbing to an elevation of 14,000 feet.
As you can imagine, this technology is extremely expensive. For example, the Corvette is valued at over $1 million as it sits with all the equipment in it. And that’s not counting the small fortune it must’ve cost during the research and development stage. But if you ask Sam, I’m sure it was worth every penny and then some and he’d probably spend even more to help make his dreams come true. What’s so cool is that now we know what’s possible and as the technology becomes less expensive, it could one day help a lot more moto enthusiasts that have suffered tragedy get back to doing what they love to do. Jay Leno met up with Sam Schmidt to see this amazing technology in action and even he was blown away by how well it all worked. Well done Arrow, thanks for keeping this man’s dream alive and for laying the groundwork for many more to come.