If you’re like me, and I’m just going to assume most of you are, motion sickness is a serious consideration on any car trip where you’re not driving. So what are we supposed to do in self-driving vehicles? Researchers are finally looking into this question with an experiment designed to see just what makes people like us so sick.
The study, at the University of Michigan, was undertaken because the researchers realized that if millions of people can’t read or do work in autonomous vehicles, that massively reduces the draw of using them in the first place. And it turns out there has been almost no investigation of why certain people get motion sickness in this context, what makes it better or worse, and so on.
“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,” explained lead investigator for the project, Monica Jones, in a university news release. “A lot of scales that exist in the literature are based on nausea. If we design to a vomiting response, we have really missed the mark on autonomous vehicles.”
Basically the cars should be designed around making people actually comfortable, not stopping just short of losing their lunch. What does that even consist of? That’s what these initial experiments are meant to explore.
The team collected 52 people from a variety of demographics and had them sit in the car while it navigated the university’s McityTest Facility, a sort of mock urban environment meant for exactly this kind of work. The drive involved the usual turns, stops and accelerations you would experience being driven around a city, and participants were asked to perform some basic tasks on an iPad and answer questions posed by a researcher in the car. I can tell you I’m feeling queasy just thinking about taking part.
They were observed for indications of discomfort and were told to report any such feelings — and of course let the researchers know if they needed to stop. Sensors watched for changes in temperature or perspiration, among other things.
The early findings (PDF) are not exactly surprising, but they’re a start. It may not be front page news that people using a gadget while in a self-driving car tended to feel more sick. But no one has ever actually studied this, so if we’re going to treat it seriously one way or the other, it needs to be directly observed. And indeed there were other factors that cropped up as well. Younger people reported higher motion sickness levels, for instance. Why? When?
“Passenger responses are complicated and have many dimensions,” said Jones. And to measure those responses the team built up a database of thousands of measurements and observations that extend beyond a simple “misery scale,” but include context and other types of pain or discomfort.
This is just the beginning of what is sure to be a longer-term study of how to make self-driving vehicles as inclusive — and popular — as possible. Certainly if they get to the bottom of it, I (and all of you out there like me) will be much more likely to use an AV for my daily commute.