Motorists may gain freedom, lose lunch in self-driving cars

Google’s self-driving cars were on display in Mountain View, Calif.  A study reviewed motion sickness and the new self-driving vehicles.
Eric Risberg/associated press
Google’s self-driving cars were on display in Mountain View, Calif. A study reviewed motion sickness and the new self-driving vehicles.

Between radar systems, touchscreen controls, and the advanced software needed to process it all, self-driving car developers such as Google and Mercedes might want to consider a low-tech addition to their high-tech vehicles: a plastic bag.

According to a new study from the University of Michigan, a sizable minority of American adults — 6 to 10 percent — could frequently become carsick from riding in a self-driving car. For those passengers, all those dreams about swiveling their car seats around, watching a movie, or reading a book while the computer takes the wheel may have to take a back seat to keeping their eyes on the road so they don’t get queasy.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, two researchers who regularly conduct surveys about driving, found that many people said they would do the same activities in a self-driving car, such as working or watching videos, that make them feel nauseated when they do those same activities as a passenger in a normal car.


Another 6 to 12 percent of American adults could become severely ill at least some of the time, although Sivak said there is some overlap between those categories. The results were similar for prospective passengers in China, but passengers in India were more likely to become ill, based on what they said they would do in a driverless car. In Japan, Australia, and the UK, passengers were less likely to get sick, according to the surveys.

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Granted, it is not the only issue self-driving cars must overcome before your dealer starts selling them. Severe weather, or even light rain, can cripple the expensive sensor systems the cars use to navigate the world around them. Other measures — such as following the directions of a police officer, but honking at anyone else who tries to tell your car where to go — are still more puzzling.

And Sivak and Schoettle acknowledge they are not the first to consider the issue of motion sickness in driverless cars. Last year, University of Coventry lecturer Cyriel Diels noted that sickness could be avoided through design features — for example, by keeping seats oriented forward or putting work surfaces or displays in places where passengers would also have a view of the road. People could also take antimotion sickness medicines, the researchers wrote, or simply close their eyes.

But where’s the fun in that?

Jack Newsham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.