Avoiding motion sickness in autonomous cars

Approximately one in three of us are susceptible to car sickness, suffering from that queasy feeling that comes from the confusion between the motion your eyes see, and the motion your body feels.

And as autonomous vehicles hit the road, the conditions that lead to car sickness could become more common. That’s the view of carmaker Volkswagen, whose scientists are working to identify what can trigger car sickness and to find ways to prevent it when a car can mostly drive itself.

“To put it simply, the forces acting on us in the car confuse our sense of perception,” said Adrian Brietzke of Volkswagen Group Research.

Passengers tend to suffer more often than drivers, says Brietzke, thanks to the “driver’s privilege” of knowing what’s about to happen, allowing them to adapt to the car’s motion.

As riders in an autonomous vehicle may not enjoy that privilege, the carmaker is conducting tests at the Volkswagen Group research labs in Wolfsburg, Germany to replicate the likely conditions in an autonomous car.

In one test, a car uses its Automatic Cruise Control function to follow another semi-autonomous car that’s travelling in a stop-start motion. The passenger in the car behind is hooked up to a number of sensors and cameras to monitor pulse, skin temperature, and even changes in skin tone as they watch a video on a tablet secured to the car’s dashboard.

Other tests involve the company’s researchers exploring whether changes to the vehicles themselves might help prevent motion sickness. Among the ideas being explored are special movable seats that can react to driving changes, and a door-mounted LED panel that lights up in green or red to alert the passenger to braking or acceleration.

While the research has had some success, the company is planning further studies, which include examining the longitudinal forces felt by passengers during braking and accelerating, and the transverse forces experienced when cornering.

There may not yet be an obvious solution to motion sickness, but if there’s a way to help avoid it in the driverless cars of the future, these researchers are keen to find it.

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