Autonomous cars are coming, bringing with them a new definition of the daily commute. As the responsibility of driving passes to artificial intelligence (AI) systems, everybody becomes a passenger with time on their hands. The question then will be about how to spend that time – sleeping, catching up on work, watching a film or reading. Proponents suggest the possibilities are limitless – but are they really?
The elephant in the room
“When vehicles can start catering more to our needs, we will see commuting not as a grind but as part of entertainment or work. It’s going to be part of our lives and not just this kind of weird twilight zone in between, which is what it is today,” predicted Luis Cilimingras, Managing Director of design and innovation specialist IDEO London. However, already there’s a problem – and it comes in the form of motion sickness. Cilimingras estimates that about one-third of people looking at their phone in a car experience “a high degree” of motion sickness. With even more such activity expected to take place in self-driving vehicles – to which should be added the seemingly myriad possibilities being conjured up by interiors and electronics suppliers – Cilimingras was keen to offer up a large dose of reality: “These are things that need to be taken care of.”
Most passengers who have tried to read in the back of a car for any length of time find out the entertainment value comes at the cost of motion sickness. That won’t go away just because the car can drive itself. “It’s probably the elephant in the room of the whole scenario,” warned Phil Morse, Technical Liaison, Commercial Group at simulator provider Ansible Motion. “If you have ever endeavoured to read a book or engage in some visual task inside a car as a passenger, then you know what happens.”
“Your eyes, focused on a stationary object, tell you that you are not moving. But your vestibular system, or sense of balance, tells you that you are moving” – Janet Weisenberger, Ohio State University
The problem was flagged by Dr Ian Robertson, Member of the Board of Management of BMW, Sales and Brand BMW, Aftersales BMW Group, at a recent future-proofing event hosted by the UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). “When you start to do things rather than concentrate on the roads, other things happen to you. It’s not very helpful to say to your children when they are unwell, ‘Read a book. You’ll feel better.’ That doesn’t generally help.”
But it gets worse. Just sitting in a self-driving car increases the chance of motion sickness. Robertson found this out firsthand during a session in an autonomous vehicle simulator. “It was to be a two-hour session at least but after a quarter of an hour I had to get out. I wasn’t feeling too well,” he commented.
The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) predicts that up to 22% of adults are likely to experience motion sickness in self-driving cars, and that’s not counting those who decide to read a book, text messages or check social media. For those engaging in activities that increase the severity and frequency of motion sickness, 37% will be affected.
The biological explanation
What specifically happens that makes someone feel nauseous when travelling in a moving vehicle? A quick search of the Internet reveals the multitude of conflicting views on the causes of motion sickness. Morse puts it down to “fundamental disruptions that are a result of visual and vestibular conflicts.”
Janet Weisenberger, Senior Associate Vice President for Research at Ohio State University (OSU) and Director of the Driving, describes it as a “mismatch of sensory input” to the brain. As she told Megatrends: “If your eyes are fixated on your phone, or a book, or a map while driving, different sensory systems are sending different messages to the brain. Your eyes, focused on a stationary object, tell you that you are not moving. But your vestibular system, or sense of balance, tells you that you are moving.”
“The challenge is to make sure that the vehicle is behaving in a predictive way. Hard braking or rapid steering – we don’t often do this as humans. If a vehicle is doing this, it can cause motion sickness” – Chris Rockwell, Lextant
UMTRI flagged three main factors behind motion sickness: conflict between vestibular and visual inputs, inability to anticipate the direction of motion, and lack of control over the direction of motion. A similar explanation came from Adrian Simms, Business Manager (Laboratory Test Systems) at simulator company AB Dynamics. He told Megatrends: “A driver has an expectation of what things will feel like. From a visual point of view, you expect things to come at you in a certain way. If suddenly it comes in to you in a completely alien way, it doesn’t work. That’s one part of motion sickness.”
The other part involves an agreement between the senses – the vestibular conflict flagged by Morse and UMTRI. As Simms elaborated: “The accelerations of velocity that apply to the body are detected by your inner ear system, the vestibular system. You have your eyes telling your body you are doing something and you also have your inner ear telling you what you’re doing. The two of them need to marry together very closely. If there’s any disagreement between those senses, that can cause motion sickness.”
There may be consensus on the causes, but the jury remains out on the solution. The problem poses a significant obstacle to some of the biggest benefits promised by autonomy. Megatrends was told in confidence by one senior OEM engineer, “If you are in the autonomous car business but you’re not looking at motion sickness, you might as well give up.”
Nobody wants to give up such a promising field of development just yet. Lextant has been tackling the visual and vestibular conflicts specifically. The Columbus, Ohio-based supplier describes itself as ‘a human experience company’ that uses design research and insight translation to develop a deep understanding of people and their experiences, resulting in human-centred design. Chief Executive Chris Rockwell told this publication: “We are doing a ton of research with simulators in this area, and usually it has to do with predictability. The challenge is to make sure that the vehicle is behaving in a predictive way. Hard braking or rapid steering – we don’t often do this as humans. If a vehicle is doing this, it can cause motion sickness.” He also suggested that there were potential steps to take to mitigate motion sickness “through lighting or with the air in the cabin, for example.”
Visteon, too, is tackling the visual and vestibular conflicts. “In an autonomous car, you don’t know when it will decide to exit the road or change lanes. The technology we are building in the cockpit, like augmented reality, can prepare the occupants,” explained Visteon’s Upton Bowden, New Technology Planning Director. “Otherwise it’s like a rollercoaster.”
“You have your eyes telling your body you are doing something and you also have your inner ear telling you what you’re doing. The two need to marry together very closely. Any disagreement between those senses can cause motion sickness” – Adrian Simms, AB Dynamics
Yanfeng Automotive Interiors is also on the case. “Motion sickness is a big issue for autonomous vehicles, and as far as I know no OEM has solved it,” commented David Muyres, Executive Director, Global Research & Advanced Development at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors. “We are doing considerable research to find out what we can do to mitigate it.”
OSU’s Weisenberger noted that some approaches look to the vehicle design, particularly the windows: “Suggestions to the problem included designing cars with large amounts of window space, so that even if someone is engaging in another activity, he would still receive motion cues from his peripheral vision. Other recommendations relate to the direction that seats in the vehicle face, because facing forward is likely to produce a better visual movement match than facing backward.”
She suggests this approach makes good sense, having experienced something similar at the Ohio State University Driving Simulation Laboratory where two simulator set-ups are in use. One set-up features a surround screen and a vehicle cab mounted on a motion platform. “This set-up is very immersive for the driver and the movement cues help to create a better match between the visual and vestibular signals to the brain,” she explained.
The other set-up is a drive-on arrangement, with which researchers can test mass-production vehicles by mounting their front wheels onto turntables and instrumenting the pedals. Notably, in this set-up, no motion cue is available. “We have found that the incidence of simulator sickness is higher with this second set-up, and the best way to combat it is not to have a surround screen,” explained Weisenberger. “Rather, we use a single front screen for the visual display, so that drivers get peripheral vision cues that tell them they are not moving. This helps to minimise simulator sickness to some degree.”
“People differ in their susceptibility to motion sickness, and for many people, repeated exposure to the environment allows them to adapt and reduce the symptoms” – Janet Weisenberger, Ohio State University
For Yanfeng’s Dominique Taffin, Senior Manager, Industrial Design, the key is in “the behaviour of the envelope – that is, the box in which you will be sitting. You want to make movement as smooth, as predictable and as linear as possible.” He would not share any trade secrets, but emphasised that the supplier was working with many customers and there was “very big interest out there”.
Give it time
Not everyone is affected, however, and for some of those that are, there’s the chance that they will eventually overcome it. As Weisenberger observed: “People differ in their susceptibility to motion sickness, and for many people, repeated exposure to the environment allows them to adapt and reduce the symptoms. A small percentage of people find it much harder to adapt and continue to experience symptoms.”
Taffin echoed this sentiment, adding: “Humans evolve and adapt to situations. Maybe this will be something that disappears at some point.” That said, he emphasised that motion sickness remains “a serious matter that has to be taken into consideration.” After all, OEMs and suppliers can ill afford to develop products that exclude even a small percentage of their customer base – particularly if the thing that excludes those potential customers is an uncontrollable sensation of nausea.
This article appeared in the Q3 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.