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At Indy 500, paralyzed driver will steer by head tilts alone

Using his head to maneuver a customized Corvette, racer Sam Schmidt, a quadriplegic, will drive laps during race festivities.

This hands-free Corvette will let racer Sam Schmidt drive laps at the Indy 500. Arrow Electronics

For the first time since becoming paralyzed in a racing accident nearly 15 years ago, former Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt will get behind the wheel.

That's thanks to the SAM (semi-autonomous motorcar) Project, a collaborative venture to use technology to get disabled drivers driving again. The project's produced a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray customized with integrated advanced electronics and a human-to-machine interface, including a brake applied by biting down on a pressure sensor.

Sam Schmidt Arrow Electronics

"Fourteen years ago, doctors told Sam Schmidt he'd never move his arms or legs again," reads an Arrow Electronics site for the project. "They didn't say anything about driving."

Arrow, a supplier of industrial electronics components, has teamed with Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and the nonprofit Falci Adaptive Motorsports on the project.

Wearing a special hat dotted with reflective infrared markers, Schmidt will maneuver the car with his head alone, tilting left or right to steer and backward to accelerate. A series of infrared cameras inside the car capture the head tilts and turn the car accordingly, and a CPU translates the movements into commands sent to actuators located on the vehicle's standard brakes, accelerator, and steering wheel.

The semi-autonomous motorcar has been deemed safe for the racetrack. The computer that controls it integrates GPS technology that electronically establishes "virtual curbs" 1 meter (about 3.2 feet) from the track's edges. If the car reaches this limit, the system warns the driver to correct course. If the car keeps drifting, the system auto-corrects it to keep it on the track.

Someone sitting in the passenger seat can operate the car's controls if needed, and engineers in the pit can stop it remotely. But the goal is to give the driver full control of the car if possible.

"The SAM Project serves to inspire people everywhere to be the drivers of their own lives -- to overcome obstacles, achieve ambitious goals, and turn the possible into the practical, often with the transformative power of advanced electronics," Arrow Electronics says.

Schmidt, 49, became a quadriplegic after crashing his car at Florida's Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000. He now owns the team Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and his foundation, the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, seeks to find a cure for paralysis.

Schmidt and SAM will drive four laps during Indy 500 festivities on May 25.