Autonomous cars are on the verge of entering America’s roadways on a massive scale. Since the technology aims to reduce accidents and save lives, many safety advocates are rejoicing. However, a study in 2015 by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institution revealed that self-driving cars will also make a number of people sick.
The study found three primary factors elevated by self-driving cars that caused motion sickness:
- Conflicting information from vestibular and visual inputs
- Not being able to anticipate the direction of the motion
- Not being in control of the direction of the motion
The three factors causing motion sickness are commonly experienced by passengers as opposed to drivers. When autonomous cars begin taking over the road, more and more humans will become passengers. But there is hope. There are several patents and patents pending that aim to alleviate this problem.
Tricking the Brain
One strategy is to trick a passenger’s brain into thinking that they are seeing the movements of the car, even when they are not. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has obtained a patent for a system that simulates the visual cues a person gets when looking out of the vehicle.
The technology mimics the vestibular inputs corresponding to the velocity, acceleration, yaw, and lateral movement of the vehicle. Its goal is to fool the vestibular system into thinking that you are looking at the road. This gives passengers the ability to pay attention to other things, which has been a huge selling point for autonomous car technology since its beginnings, without the effects of motion sickness. A wearable device or light panel embedded in the vehicle’s cabin are possible delivery mechanisms.
Another way of approaching the problem is to prevent the passenger from moving in ways that trigger motion sickness. Waymo, a Google company, has filed for a patent describing a system that eliminates motion sickness by determining routes that could keep it to a minimum.
The system could suggest a less bumpy road or send an alert recommending passengers not to look down or read during the trip. Passengers more profoundly sensitive to motion sickness could also be offered specific seats where the effects are reduced. Waymo’s technology would look at the acceleration and swaying of the car back and forth to calculate whether motion sickness is probable on a particular route. The system could also change its driving style or route when a passenger specifies that they feel queasy.
Uber’s game plan for dealing with motion sickness is to give you visual cues for you to learn, whereby you can anticipate the motion and direction of the car. In fact, Uber has already submitted patents describing such a system. The ride-share company proposes a “sensory stimulation system” that essentially trains a passenger’s vestibular system to correlate what they see with what they feel.
One of the proposed mechanisms for this includes a light bar that surrounds a part of the interior and provides visual cues alerting the passenger to acceleration, braking, or directional changes. It could possibly use colors and levels of brightness to indicate different movements.
In addition to or instead of this, a display unit could provide a third-person representation of the self-driving car’s route and cue passengers to the motion and direction of the car in a way that’s synchronized with the control system. This could preempt the lack of awareness that contributes to symptoms. Another possible output device is controllable seats. The system could alter the pitch, roll, and yaw of the seat to adjust for the movements of the autonomous car.
Other companies and universities have been taking on the problem. The chief executive of Lextant, an automotive supplier, says that predictability plays a major part in eliminating motion sickness caused by autonomous cars. He offered lighting and air technologies as possible solutions. On the other hand, electronics supplier Visteon is working on ways to alert occupants of upcoming movement by using augmented reality. Designing cars with lots of window space so that passengers can’t help but receive motion cues from the outside is another possible solution.
Addressing Motion Sickness
The industry is aware of the importance of resolving the issue. One senior OEM engineer is quoted as saying, “If you are in the autonomous car business but you’re not looking at motion sickness, you might as well give up.”
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute predicts that 22 percent of adults will probably experience motion sickness just from being in autonomous cars. This number rises to 37 percent for those engaging in ways that make motion sickness worse and more frequent, such as reading, texting or generally any activity that ignores the motion of the vehicle.