Quadriplegic Man Gets Nation's First Autonomous Car Driver's License


Driver Sam Schmidt, a paralyzed racecar driver pictured here in 2014 in front of his modified Corgette, recently received a first-of-its-kind driver's license. USAF/Al Bright
Driver Sam Schmidt, a paralyzed racecar driver pictured here in 2014 in front of his modified Corgette, recently received a first-of-its-kind driver's license. USAF/Al Bright

When Sam Schmidt gets behind the wheel of his Corvette, he starts the engine with the sound of his voice, accelerates with a puff of air and tilts his head to turn the car — a semi-autonomous vehicle called SAM designed by Arrow Electronics — around a corner. As the United States' first person to be issued an autonomous vehicle restricted driver's license, Schmidt, who is quadriplegic, is free to navigate his special car on public roads and control its movements with breath and voice commands.

Nevada lieutenant governor Mark Hutchinson presented the unique license to Schmidt following a public demonstration last week in which Schmidt drove the car using only his head. Schmidt, a Nevada resident and former professional racecar driver, was involved in a racing accident in 2000 that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Schmidt's driver's license is a first step in making autonomous vehicles more mainstream. "Presenting Sam Schmidt with the first autonomous vehicle driver's license marks a turning point... a catalyst for even more transforming technologies," Hutchison said in a statement.

Schmidt's modified Corvette, was retrofitted by U.S. Air Force performance lab Arrow Electronics. The Colorado-based company installed technology to allows Schmidt to activate the car and change gears using only the sounds of his voice. The car has a mouth-controlled sip-and-puff air tube that makes it accelerate or brake. And Schmidt controls the car's direction by wearing a headset that syncs with infrared, dashboard-mounted cameras that respond the tilt of his head. Learn more about the Schmidt and his car in this video:

Before earning his license, Schmidt reached 152 mph (245 kph) during a demonstration at the Indianapolis 500 earlier this year. He also successfully navigated the sharp switchbacks of the Pike's Peak International Hill Climb, the country's second-oldest auto race.

Although Schmidt's driver's license is groundbreaking, it does come with restrictions. When he operates the car, he must drive behind an Arrow Electronics pilot car and have a licensed driver in the car with him who can control the vehicle if needed. In addition, Schmidt isn't allowed to drive if there is ice or snow on the roadways.

"So far I haven't honked," he told CNN. "But I might have to do that soon."