Will driverless cars make you queasy?

According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as one in three Americans experience motion sickness – a condition that tends to flare when you’re a passenger in a car, rather than a driver.

But with driverless cars set to increase the proportion of journeys people will make as passengers, how can this group avoid missing out on the benefits of self-driving technology?

That’s a question being addressed by researchers at the University of Michigan, who have been conducting a unique research project to identify and quantify motion sickness in passenger vehicles.

“One of the great promises of autonomous vehicles—to give us back time by freeing us from driving—is at risk if we can’t solve the motion sickness problem,” said Monica Jones, an assistant research scientist in the Biosciences Group at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

“If it’s not mitigated in some way, motion sickness may affect people’s willingness to adopt driverless cars.”

The research team’s study developed a methodology for testing specific driving manoeuvres and passenger activities that make people carsick.

It is also the first study to conduct a large-scale comparison of reading task performance and urban acceleration levels on motion sickness response in a passenger vehicle, according to the researchers, who say that the factors that cause motion sickness in cars are not yet well understood.

“Very few studies have been conducted in cars; instead, a lot of the work has been done for sea and air transportation modes, performed in driving simulators or on motion platforms,” said Jones. “These results are not translating very well to road vehicles.”

And with autonomous vehicles promising to one day offer drivers more leisure time on the road, the team want to understand how to make passengers more comfortable.

“A lot of scales that exist in the literature are based on nausea,” said Jones. “If we design to a vomiting response, we have really missed the mark on autonomous vehicles. We need to target comfort levels. Can a passenger engage with a handheld device while riding? Can a passenger be productive with their time?”


As they work to better understand the impact of motion sickness in driverless cars, the researchers hope to develop a nuanced mathematical model of motion sickness that will help carmakers to build vehicles that operate below the threshold.

Decisions about how driverless cars brake and accelerate during turns, or how the seating area and windows are arranged could be informed by the project’s data, say the team.

“We have found that passenger responses are complicated and have many dimensions,” said Jones.

“Applications of this testbed will result in the data we need to identify preventative measures and alleviate motion sickness in autonomous vehicles.”

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