Keeping your lunch down in autonomous cars

Departments - Editor’s page

October 3, 2019

You didn’t really need that fifth bratwurst with sauerkraut, but it’s football season and what’s wrong with a little excess? And maybe you chased it down with too many adult beverages, but with self-driving cars, you can just tell your vehicle to take you home while you sit back and relax.

Careful there, you’re looking a little green. You feeling OK? Oh… do you have any paper towels or wet wipes?

Autonomous vehicle (AV) passengers are more susceptible to motion sickness than people in traditional cars and trucks. University of Michigan Transport Research Institute (UMTRI) researchers found three basic conditions that lead to motion sickness, and AVs exacerbate all of them:

  • Mismatch between what we see and the motion we feel in our inner ears
  • Our ability to anticipate motion
  • Our ability to control the direction of our movements
  • The need for motion control is why many people prone to motion sickness insist on driving, and there’s nothing engineers can do to address that problem. The other two issues – motion anticipation and mismatched visual data – become worse when people read, text, or work – the things that make self-driving cars attractive.

    Though Level 5, fully self-driving cars are still a way off, Level 1 through Level 3 assistance technologies such as adaptive cruise control are already here. For the past few weeks, I’ve been driving a car with adaptive cruise that uses sensors to determine a safe distance between me and the car in front, adjusting speed accordingly. At highway speeds, the technology is seamless and simple. However, when I tried using it at lower speeds, I stepped out of the car feeling like I’d spent the day riding roller coasters.

    Between 20mph and about 40mph on crowded city streets, the system had to react too frequently. There was always another driver cutting in front of me, forcing the car to slam on its brakes, or one moving away (when the car sensed a big gap, it would accelerate suddenly to get up to speed before slowing unexpectedly as it approached another vehicle). When I’m driving myself, dealing with constant changes in traffic is nothing. But when I gave accelerator and brake control to the car, I instantly regretted that tuna salad sandwich lunch.

    Automakers are aware of the problem, and it’s one of many challenges they’re trying to address as they develop AVs. The UMTRI researchers who studied the problem have developed an anti-nausea device that uses light to better inform passengers of upcoming vehicular movement. Phone- or tablet-casting devices that allow passengers to read or text while seeing the road (on a touchscreen car window, for example) instead of looking down could lessen nausea. People who kept their attention on traffic instead of using the time for something else reported less nausea. Wider windows that give passengers a clearer sense of the road could help.

    Or, we could all take motion sickness medication every time we get into vehicles.