In a future filled with autonomous vehicles, in which we’ll be increasingly converted from drivers to passengers, car sickness could become a real problem. According to a 2015 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, motion sickness affects up to 12 percent of vehicle occupants in the US.
Researchers identified three primary causes of motion sickness:
- Insufficient anticipation of motion (i.e., when a car’s movements are not expected)
- Lack of motion control, such as when a car’s movements are anticipated but are different than expected and also not controlled by a person.
- What researchers call “vestibular and visual conflict,” or when your eyes are looking at something steady like a phone screen or book, but your inner ear senses that you’re moving.
The researchers also noted that the percentage of those who suffer from motion sickness could rise as former drivers become passengers in AVs. “All three factors, to varying degrees, are more frequently experienced by vehicle passengers than by drivers, who rarely experience motion sickness,” researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle wrote in the report.
Not being able to catch up on reading or the latest episodes of your favorite Netflix series could kill the promise of AVs giving us back precious time. Fortunately, researchers and AV developers are working on solutions to prevent motion sickness and the resultant puking.
Lights, Moving Seats, and Puffs of Air
Earlier this year, the same research team at UMTRI developed a patented solution that employs a series of small LEDs to “provide light stimuli in the visual periphery of the passenger to mimic what the rider might see outside.” The patent calls for LEDs to be installed both in a vehicle and on “a wearable solution” such as glasses.
Last year Uber applied for a patent that uses techniques similar to those proposed by UMTRI and employs “light bars” mounted on the ceiling, doors, or even screens around the interior to signal an AV’s intentions so passengers know when a turn is coming up or the vehicle is about to accelerate or brake. The Uber patent also adds distracting sensory stimuli such as vibrating seats and puffs of air directed at passengers.
The patent describes how “motors can control pitch, roll, and/or yaw of the seat” in response to turns and vibrate when braking. It also shows how jets of air aimed at the rider’s head, shoulders, torso, arms, legs or feet can also be used to indicate “speed/intensity, direction, temperature, timing. A study published last year in Experimental Brain Research showed that an airflow system like the one proposed by Uber could be effective at reducing motion sickness.
There are also things car designers can do to keep passengers from feeling queasy. Janet Weisenberger, senior associate VP for research at Ohio State University and director of the school’s Driving Simulation Laboratory, told Automotive World that “designing cars with large amounts of window space” can help passengers from getting green around the gills. “Even if someone is engaging in another activity, he would still receive motion cues from his peripheral vision,” she said.
Humans and their bodies will also eventually acclimate to being passengers instead of drivers, Weisenberger added. “For many people, repeated exposure to the environment allows them to adapt and reduce the symptoms,” she said.
Until then, maybe the best low-tech solution will be to have plenty of those airline motion sickness bags in the cabins of self-driving cars. Or develop a patent for a system that cleans vomit out of cars.