Look, Ma! No Hands!

(via EE Times) –

Editor’s Note:

While media types like yours truly dwell on horse-race stories about the technologies being designed into autonomous cars, we tend to forget what an automated vehicle (AV) is really supposed to do.

First and foremost, the AV is about safer driving and saving lives. But it’s also about making “mobility” more efficient and economically viable, especially in cities, via ride-hailing or ride-share services.

One overlooked topic, however, is how vehicle autonomy can restore mobility to people who have lost it through age or infirmity — or maybe in a car accident. It could also mean helping veterans who have lost legs, for example, to get back to the farm on a semi-autonomous tractor.

The very idea of AVs restoring personal mobility didn’t occur to us until our editorial team stumbled upon the Semi-Autonomous Motor (SAM) Car project.

The SAM project began with professional race car driver Sam Schmidt, who was paralyzed from the neck down when he crashed in 2000. Four years ago, Arrow Electronics created technology that enabled Schmidt to get back into a race car and take a joy ride, at better than 100 mph, on the Indianapolis Speedway.

Full disclosure: Arrow Electronics, which initiated the SAM Car project, owns AspenCore, a publisher of EE Times, EDN, Electronic Products, and other publications. However, Arrow did not demand a SAM Car story, nor were the editors interested in pursuing a feel-good story about our parent company’s social beneficence.

But we are reporters. Our curiosity overcame our misgivings. As we talked to the SAM Car team, we couldn’t help but ask what’s inside the thing. The team revealed that they relied entirely on off-the-shelf components. The more we asked, the more we learned about how a motley crew of engineers working for an electronics distributor managed to convert a stock Corvette into the fastest wheelchair ever to turn a lap at the Brickyard (or anywhere).

We asked Brian Santo, editor-in-chief at EDN, to pump the SAM Car guys. It turns out that this was a dream project for engineers with a passion for tinkering, modifying, and, ultimately, inventing a thing that not only works but answers a human need. In a story entitled “How to Build a Car for Someone Who Can’t Drive,” Santo chronicles the challenges, discoveries, trade-offs, and minor epiphanies experienced by the SAM team.

Santo also did a SAM Car teardown, laying out its technologies and components.

We also knew that the SAM Car epitomizes the issue of HMI. The car has to track Sam Schmidt’s eyes to read his intentions. We turned to Colin Barnden, principal analyst at Semicast Research, to write about driver monitoring systems (DMS) that focus on eye tracking. Barnden’s piece touches on the vital requirement that DMS assesses eye gaze and determines precisely where the driver is looking.

Finally, we tapped Joe Verrengia, global director responsible for corporate social responsibility (CSR) at Arrow Electronics to explain how the SAM Car project got started, the lessons learned, and the SAM project’s future.

Arrow is not claiming any IP rights on SAM Car. The company says that it will give the hardware designs and software away, free for the asking. But they told us, “Serious inquiries only, please.” For those of you with legitimate proposals, please contact Josh Willis at Arrow Electronics (

We based this Special Project on the proposition that SAM technology might inspire readers in the engineering community to explore prospects that they hadn’t thought of before. We wanted to see SAM become part of a bigger story — about engineers using what they learn to help others, a story that some of you might help to write.


Check out the articles in this Special Project:

How to Build a Car for Someone Who Can’t Drive

Teardown: Semi-Autonomous Motorcar

The Eyes Have It

Let’s Modify a Car


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