(via EE Times) – Arrow Electronics’ CEO’s instructions for the SAM Car team were concise and daunting: Modify a car so that a disabled person could drive in an entirely new way. Enable the driver to go very fast. And get it done now.
The Arrow SAM Car, short for “Semi-Autonomous Motorcar,” has raced high-speed demos at the Indy 500, streaked to the summit of a 14,000-ft. mountain, and braved Manhattan traffic at rush hour. It’s been featured in more than 700 news stories worldwide. Business Insider named it the world’s top automotive innovation in 2016.
Along the way, the SAM Car has helped Arrow to generate significant new business with industries ranging from automotive to defense to agriculture.
Could I have predicted that any of this would’ve happened when we started? No way.
That’s why the SAM Car, while an inspiring humanitarian technology project, really is a case study for the process of innovation. It’s proof that doing something new, uncertain, and deliberately out of your company’s comfort zone can be just what you need — when you need to change.
The SAM Car has become a 192-mph symbol of Arrow as a unique provider of end-to-end complex technology solutions under demanding conditions.
In 2013, Arrow launched its corporate social responsibility program. Primarily, we work with nonprofits and our business partners to develop remarkable humanitarian technologies that make life better and strengthen Arrow’s reputation as an end-to-end solutions provider.
We chose to address disability because, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five Americans is disabled due to aging, illness and war injuries, and other factors. We were confident that today’s technologies can improve mobility and consequently make life better in many ways.
CEO Mike Long agreed. His instructions were concise and daunting: Modify a car so that a disabled person could drive in an entirely new way. Enable the driver to go very fast. And get it done now. The whole idea focused on how a person with quadriplegia — little or no movement or sensation in their limbs — could drive using only head controls.
(Full disclosure: Arrow Electronics, which initiated the SAM Car project, owns AspenCore, a publisher of EE Times, EDN, Electronic Products, and other publications.)
We called it SAM, for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar. And we recruited a quadriplegic former race car driver named Sam Schmidt to drive it with us.
Why do all of this when autonomous vehicles were going viral?
Because Sam Schmidt and other members of the disabled were telling us something very clearly: They want to drive. For many disabled people, an autonomous car looks like a bigger, faster wheelchair.
Driving means taking command. Driving means freedom.
And in doing so, they would be doing more than driving a car. They would be the drivers of their lives.
With that in mind, we started to brainstorm. Those sessions produced three full pages of ideas about what semi-autonomous, head-controlled driving could be. We would do it only with off-the-shelf components but in a new and unique integration.
And we would debut within five months at the Indy 500 in May — the most famous and largest auto race in the world.
Reality set in when we took delivery of our first car, a 2014 Corvette Stingray — one of the first examples of the new C7 design to roll off the assembly line. At a Chevy dealership on a frigid Saturday in January, our engineers put the car on a lift and saw for the first time what they had to work with.
The real car was a little different than how it appeared in online diagrams. On the spot, our engineers began modifying their head-control solutions to align with the actual car.
The clock was ticking. As the Indy 500 approached, the team reduced pages of driving ideas to a simple but powerful demonstration — steering, acceleration, and braking. Every time we test-drove, the solution was tweaked.
In qualifying laps for the Indy 500 race, Sam Schmidt hit 97 mph. In subsequent laps, he reached 107 mph. When he pulled back into the pits, the current generation of Indy racers rushed the SAM car to celebrate his return to the track. So did his parents, who hadn’t seen him drive since his near-fatal racing accident in 2000.
In nearly five years since that initial success, the SAM Car has remained a head-controlled vehicle. Every January, we set a new project goal to solve a problem, and within weeks, we are demonstrating our new solution. To get there, we reconfigure our team every year to include new partners and employees.
The technology package evolved as we sought higher speeds. The infrared cameras for steering have improved, especially for road courses and street driving. We reduced the sensors from a driving hat to low-profile sunglasses. Full co-driver controls were added to the right seat for safety.
Separate controls for gas and brake were merged into a sip-and-puff system. Voice commands for things like the horn and wipers were added for street driving. As a result, Sam Schmidt earned the first driver’s license for a quadriplegic driver.
We added an early IoT platform to capture and display the performance measurements of both the car and the driver.
(Impressive fact: Sam Schmidt’s pulse actually drops — below 60 bpm — when he drives at racing speeds.)
Some innovations haven’t quite succeeded. A head-mounted steering interface to eliminate the infrared cameras worked in a simulator. But it didn’t work in the car, which is a more challenging environment.
In 2018, we broadened the program so that five disabled military service members could drive the car. Not only did they represent the five branches of the U.S. military, but they represented a wide range of disabilities that the SAM Car could help.
So what’s next?
This year, our engineers are looking to modify a more practical vehicle so that Sam Schmidt can drive more often and more independently.
Converting a van or an SUV for quadriplegic driving will take a lot of work. But the real technology challenge will be developing a smart wheelchair that seamlessly connects to the vehicle and serves more like a mission command center than just a seat.
And we are examining how the system can be adapted for farm, industrial, and military equipment. It would expand opportunities for the disabled community, but it could also increase productivity for able-bodied workers as well.
We are brainstorming with new partners and advisors about entirely new concepts to increase freedom for the disabled community. That same smart wheelchair that connects Sam to a daily driving vehicle can also serve as an integrated communications center and functionally connect him with his work and home environments, reducing his reliance on human assistants.
And we are exploring how he might move out of his wheelchair and navigate the world in entirely new ways.
Now we refer to SAM not as Semi-Autonomous Motorcar but Semi-Autonomous Mobility. The technology will change. The transportation platform will change.
But the purpose remains true.
Sam Schmidt wants to be the driver of his life, and Arrow is helping to get him there.