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Will driverless cars make you sick?

Apr 20, 2015

We've heard about all the progress made towards autonomous cars.

Focusing your view on the inside of the car instead of on the world outside of the car means you're more likely to experience nausea while traveling.
Credit FLICKR USER STEVEN DUCKWORTH / FLICKR

The idea is: you get in, sit back, and let the car do the driving.

However, research suggests that not everyone will be able to enjoy this new-found freedom from the wheel.

Researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute have discovered that nausea and carsickness are definite possibilities for passengers in driverless cars.

Researcher Brandon Schoettle said the research comes from a couple of studies. In one, researchers asked people how they thought they would pass the time as a passenger in a self-driving vehicle. A different study from a few years ago dealt with general motion sickness and its causes.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the things people think they’ll be doing in self-driving vehicles fall on that list of things that cause motion sickness,” Schoettle said.

In the study, people listed activities like reading, texting, and working as activities they would do while allowing the car to drive itself. Schoettle said these activities force passengers to focus their eyes on the inside of the car, instead of on the world outside the car. Because people would be unable to control the car, they likewise would be unable to anticipate the car’s movement from one moment to the next, which contributes to motion sickness.

Of potential future users of driverless cars, around 6-12% will experience motion sickness “often,” “frequently,” or “always,” Schoettle said. Some will even have motion sickness so severe that it will render them unable to continue their commute in the driverless car.

“And all of this comes back to this disconnect that occurs between the eyes and the ears,” Schoettle said. “If you’re looking inside the vehicle, your ears are telling you that the world’s moving around quite a bit, where your eyes are telling you nothing is moving at all, and your brain doesn’t like this conflict.”