Sam Schmidt has experienced memorable victories as an INDYCAR driver and team owner, but achieved one of his greatest personal triumphs today when he became the first American to receive an autonomous vehicle driver’s license in his home state of Nevada.
Paralyzed from the neck down following an Indy car testing crash in 2000, Schmidt has been working with Arrow Electronics since 2014 on its semi-autonomous motorcar (SAM) project. Schmidt was rewarded for the endeavor today when presented his driver’s license at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – site of his only Verizon IndyCar Series win in 1999 – by Nevada Lt. Gov. Mark Hutchison.
"This has been an incredible journey," Schmidt said. "What started as a hope and a dream to go 100 mph (in the SAM car) has taken on a life of its own.
“Getting a driver’s license is not the end of the road, but it is the ultimate example to tell the world you can absolutely accomplish anything if you combine resources with the right group committed to a common cause,” Schmidt said. “It has truly been a life-changing experience for me and my family.”
Following the crash, Schmidt formed a race team in 2001 that has competed in both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. He also founded a foundation, Conquer Paralysis Now, whose mission is to find a cure for paralysis.
Schmidt began collaborating with Arrow on its modified Chevrolet Corvette Z06 two years ago. The SAM car is steered by infrared cameras that sense Schmidt’s head-tilt movements. A sip-and-puff tube enables Schmidt to brake and accelerate the car, while his voice commands tell the car to change gears and turn on or off.
He first drove the SAM car publicly on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in 2014 and has driven it at several other Verizon IndyCar Series tracks since, most recently less than two weeks ago on the undulating road course at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. He returned to IMS this May, running as fast as 152 mph, and topped that by driving the car on the bottom half of the treacherous 12.42-mile Pikes Peak Hill Climb in June.
“Quickly changing technology no different than advances in cell phones have allowed us to compete on road courses, go 152 miles per hour at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year and complete the Pikes Peak Hill Climb,” said Schmidt. “These were all ridiculous thoughts three years ago.”
Mike Long, chairman, president and CEO of Arrow, which has become a primary sponsor on Schmidt's team, said the pairing of his company and Schmidt has been an inspiration to all.
“It’s an honor to collaborate with Sam and the state of Nevada to guide innovative autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies forward,” Long said. “We hope the SAM car continues to inspire people to innovate and dream big because, as Sam showed us all today, anything is possible.”
The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has been working with Schmidt and Arrow since 2015 to become the first state to enhance regulations allowing Schmidt to legally drive the SAM car on the state’s public roads under restricted conditions. After the lieutenant governor gave Schmidt his license, Schmidt demonstrated his driving skills on the speedway’s Exotic Racing track and nearby public roads as part of a fundraising event for Conquer Paralysis Now.
“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,” said Lt. Gov. Hutchison. “I'm confident today's events will serve as a catalyst for even more transforming technologies, which will enrich and enhance the lives of all Nevadans. I'd like to thank all of the dedicated individuals who had a part in making today a reality, and congratulate Sam on this milestone.”