Will Robocars Make You Puke?

If you read and face backward while being robo-chauffeured, you may indeed lose your lunch

Photo: Mercedes-Benz
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When the robocar revolution comes, we’re told, the person formerly known as the driver will curl up with an e-reader or swivel fully around in order to talk with people in the back seat.

That’s the vision epitomized in the Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept, which figures on our list of the Top Ten Tech Cars of 2016. It’s a lounge on wheels, and it’s undeniably cool, in a retro-jet-age way.

But even more retro is the accessory that nobody mentions: the barf bag. Because if you read or face backward while being driven, you may well get carsick and lose your lunch. 

Automakers think about the problem more than they talk about it. “I am working in this area with Ford Europe as well as Valeo [a Paris-based auto supplier],” says Cyriel Diels, a ergonomics specialist at Britain’s Coventry University. “I know that various other manufacturers and suppliers are aware of my papers, including Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover.”

Diels argues that the designers of self-driving cars must begin by considering the comfort of passengers. “Automated vehicles cannot simply be thought of as living rooms, offices, or entertainment venues on wheels,” he argues. 

Attending to the causes of motion sickness is key. Reading and facing backward tend to induce the problem because they create a mismatch between what your eyes are seeing and your inner ear is feeling. With every unexpected jolt and every wrench to one side during a turn, your brain loses its sense of where it is. That’s when the queasiness starts creeping up on you. 

The driver is largely immune to car sickness because he sees what’s happening just when he feels it; no string of surprises for him. That’s why a bad driver who repeatedly accelerates and brakes will feel just fine even as his hapless passengers turn 50 shades of green.

Passive passengers have felt the same sickness at sea and in outer space. In fact, astronauts calibrate space sickness on the informal “Garn scale”; a full garn is held to be the ultimate in misery. It’s named after former U.S. Senator Jake Garn, who, as head of the subcommittee that handled budget requests from NASA, wangled himself a trip on the Space Shuttle in 1985 that he later must have regretted taking. “Barfin’ Jake Garn,” the comic strip Doonesbury called him.  

The inner ear is key to the problem. Tellingly, deaf people do not get motion sickness; blind people can. And quick reflexes are apparently no defense, either: young adults develop motion sickness the most, octogenarians, the least. Women get it more often than men (or are more likely to admit to getting it).

A key way of defending against motion sickness is by keeping yourself fully apprised of upcoming lurches in your vehicle. It’s good to look out the window, better to look at the road up ahead, and best of all to be behind the wheel, so that you don’t merely predict the future but take a hand in bringing it about. So, one obvious rule of thumb for robocar designers is to let in a lot of daylight, both from the front and the side of the car, which means arranging interior posts so as to obstruct the view as little as possible.  

In a paper published this month in Applied Ergonomics, Diels and Jelte Bos of the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research suggest that additional visual cues could be provided through augmented reality. They cite one study conducted in flight simulators that showed that people had a fourfold reduction in airsickness when they were presented with a projected trajectory of motion.

Reading or playing on a gaming console can also be made easier on a passenger’s stomach. You can simply make the e-reader or other electronic device small in relation to the view of the outside world, particularly when driving conditions involve start-and-stop motion. That way, a people can more readily track road conditions with their peripheral vision. You can also use virtual reality displays to create a see-through cockpit, with walls and A-pillars appearing transparent, so people can keep tabs on the outside world no matter where they may be looking.

But a settled stomach comes at a cost. If engineers tune autonomous cars to drive in such a way as to minimize the chance of carsickness, such cars would find it harder to pack themselves more efficiently onto the roads. Maybe road congestion is here to stay—but at least we could entertain ourselves while mired in traffic.

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IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.