Carmakers Work to Curb Carsickness in the Autonomous Era

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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Do you suffer from car sickness? It’s only going to get worse in autonomous cars. Luckily, Volkswagen Group and other carmakers wants to help.

  • Volkswagen Group is working to solve car sickness before autonomous cars become prevalent.
  • Researchers are testing LEDs that give riders a visual heads-up as to what the self-driving car is about to do — brake or accelerate.
  • It is also testing car seats that absorb and negate longitudinal forces.
  • Citroen is sort of working on finding a solution to motion sickness, too, and released special glasses that mimic the horizon.

Volkswagen Group announced that it has begun testing solutions to carsickness — specifically in self-driving cars.

Around one third of people suffer from carsickness. And it affects half of people who try to read in cars, according to Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). What’s more, women are more susceptible to motion sickness than men and children more susceptible than women.

What Causes Car Sickness

Car sickness is caused when a person’s inner ears, muscles, and joints sense movement that is contradicted by what their eyes are seeing. For example, a moving car can appear stationary to the person riding in it because the immediate environment, the interior of the car, is static. According to National Institutes of Health, researchers believe it is this set of conflicting signals that trigger carsickness.

Volkswagen fears that car sickness susceptibility will rise once autonomous cars become publicly available. This is because people are more prone to car sickness as passengers than as drivers. So it stands to reason that people riding in automated vehicles could be more prone to motion sickness. Add in the psychological effect of having literally zero input into the car’s movement added with the fact that people will probably engage with visual media while being transported in self-driving cars and car sickness could become a real epidemic in the coming era of autonomous cars.

University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) patent for autonomous vehicle lights that reduce carsickness. | Photo: U.S. Patent Office

 

VW enlisted some scientists in Wolfsburg, Germany to tackle the problem of carsickness in self-driving cars. Researchers place test subjects in the passenger seat of a car for 20 minutes with Automatic Cruise Control engaged following a semi-autonomous Passat, which drives in a stop-and-go fashion. The riders are monitored by sensors and cameras designed to measure “heart rate, skin temperature, and even changes in skin tone” (people get green from nausea, I guess?).

While they are riding in the car, test subjects are asked to watch a video of swimming fish on a dashboard mounted tablet. Scientists chose an innocuous video of a fish instead of, say, an action film or comedy, as they feared a blockbuster’s emotional effects would skew the data.

To counteract carsickness, VW Group researchers are first working to overcome the hurdle that it dubs the “driver’s privilege.” The idea being that the driver knows when he or she is going to brake or accelerate. The passenger does not. So, before the test subject’s follow vehicle brakes or accelerates, a red or green LED light flashes inside the car, giving them indication of what the vehicle is about to do.

The Group is also playing with neutralizing longitudinal forces that passengers feel when braking and accelerating with seats that move.

No thorough breakthroughs have been logged yet. Though, by VW’s estimation, it can take its time with the research; it doesn’t anticipate autonomous cars being available for another decade.

Alternative Ways To Cure Car Sickness

Delightfully, VW is not the only group working on a solution to carsickness. Earlier this year, UMTRI patented a set of goggles that flash lights at the wearer that replicate the movement around them. This, so people can read in a moving vehicle without becoming motion sick. Don’t want to wear silly light goggles while in an autonomous car? UMTRI is working on panels that can be embedded in a car that will have the same effect.

Seetroën S19 glasses
Citroen’s Seetroën S19 glasses mimic the horizon in a wearer’s periphery. | Photo: Sébastien STAUB

 

Citroen is also on the motion sickness solution case with its Seetroën S19 glasses. The blue liquid inside the frames replicate the horizon, which is said to alleviate the mixed sensory signals that cause car sickness. Seetroëns were so popular at first launch in July 2018 that the French automaker made a second generation of the bizarre but undeniably French spectacles.

Fighting Car Sickness In Rideshare

While we wait for VW Group and others to get to the bottom of carsickness, millions of people are still continuing to suffer from it every day. With more people riding in ride-hailing vehicles and other forms of mobility, the problem is only going to get worse before it gets better. However, if you are one of the 100 million American is susceptible to motion sickness, you can take steps to prevent and counteract it today. That is, if you were not one of the 1,919 people who were able to purchase a pair of the Seetroëns.

  • Keep your head up look out the window. It might sound almost too simple, but studies have shown that focusing on the moving objects outside the car help better align the signals your brain is getting from your eyes, inner ear, etc. If you’re one of the people susceptible to carsickness, the easiest thing you can do to help prevent it is to not look at unmoving objects, like books, smartphones or tablets.
  • Put the window down a bit. It might sound like an old wives tale, but fresh air and an abundant air flow can keep motion sickness in check.
  • Avoid spicy or greasy foods before going for a ride. It’s not easy (or fun) to adjust your diet to accommodate your ride-shared commute, especially since those food types are ultra popular in America. But they can exacerbate carsickness.
  • Keep some ginger candies on you. Previous studies, as well as some that are currently ongoing, have evaluated the effect ginger extract and ginger candies have on reducing motion sickness.

I am confident that with smoothing out the movement of self-driving cars in addition to other light-based solutions, carmakers will be able to all but eliminate car sickness in autonomous vehicles. I mean, there will likely never be a panacea. But at least strides will be made in the coming decade in advance of the widespread release of self-driving cars. In the meantime, keep your chin up and your eyes focused on the road ahead — both literally and figuratively.


About the Author

  • Nick Jaynes has worked for more than a decade in automotive media industry. In that time, he's done it all—from public relations for Chevrolet to new-car reviews for Mashable. Nick now lives in Portland, Oregon and spends his weekends traversing off-road trails in his 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser.

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