Mario Andretti vs. semi-autonomous tech on the track

On Saturday, May 13, famed race car driver Mario Andretti will be back on the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This time, he’ll 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, he’s 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 Pike’s 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 it’s 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, Schmidt’s old Corvette Stingray. It’s 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. We’re at practice right now,” said Will Pickard, the chief engineer on the SAM project, in a trackside phone interview on Thursday. “He’s grinning ear to ear.”

Andretti has been more than a good sport about the competition; he’s 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 — he’d been reading about SAM’s HMI and watching videos of Schmidt. “He’s done his homework,” Pickard said.

“Mario’s one of the best who’s ever been behind a steering wheel,” Pickard added. “Now he’s 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 didn’t change Sam in terms of his fundamental talent; he just didn’t have a car to drive,” Pickard said. So Arrow worked to develop a car he could really race. “We’ve gotten to the point where Sam is driving the car to its physical limit. We’re burning through tires; he’s hitting apexes and pulling gs.”

Unlike most autonomous car projects, Arrow “is about trying to put a driver back into the driver’s seat,” Pickard explained. SAM 3.0 is a singular project, but the technology translates to real-world applications for drivers with limited mobility.

If you’re the betting type and you’d 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; Schmidt’s accident was in 2000, not 2017.