Self-driving cars should save lives, but a significant fraction of those being ferried about in autonomous automobiles can look forward to motion sickness.
According to a report by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (TRI), "6-10% of American adults riding in fully self-driving vehicles would be expected to often, usually, or always experience some level of motion sickness."
This is not to say that self-driving cars are inherently more vomit-inducing than normal cars. In an email, Sivak explained that the incidence of motion sickness in self-driving vehicles would be the same as in conventional vehicles, provided people participated in the same activities.
But self-driving cars should give us more free time, by idling drivers and by removing a possible source of conversational interaction from passengers. And we're apparently planning to use our time surplus to make ourselves sick.
The TRI report, "Motion Sickness in Self-Driving Vehicles," attempts to calculate the expected frequency and severity of motion sickness in self-driving vehicles based on a survey of what people say they'd do as passengers in such vehicles.
"The point of the study is that in a self-driving vehicle one would be more likely to be involved in activities that are likely to lead to motion sickness (e.g., texting, watching TV/video, working, playing games), because you would not be driving (which is not motion-sickness inducing)," Sivak said in an email.
Not to worry. Nausea isn't a deal-breaker.
The cruise industry, a leading supplier of motion sickness, appears to be headed for a record-breaking year. According to a 1988 study, out of 20,029 seafaring travelers, "7% of passengers reported vomiting at some time during the journey, 21% said they felt 'slightly unwell,' 4% felt 'quite ill,' and a further 4% felt 'absolutely dreadful.'"
Air travel is also quite popular, despite its association with motion sickness and assorted fare-dependent indignities, including, but not limited to, shrinking personal space, multiplying fees, and favoritism based on travel frequency. Perhaps air travel remains popular because the comparatively smaller fraction of people who tend to throw up, feel nauseous, or feel ill on airplanes -- 0.5%, 8.4%, and 16.2% respectively, according to a study published in 2000 -- are just glad that they're not on a boat.
In the TRI study, based on 3,255 respondents in the United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and the UK, those from the US said they'd use their extra time to read (10.8%), talk/text with family/friends (9.8%), sleep (6.8%), watch movies (6%), work (4.8%), play games (2%), or "other" (1.4%).
Perhaps more noteworthy is the finding that about quarter to a third of respondents from the US, Australia, Japan, and the UK said they'd refuse to ride in a self-driving car. From this group, the highest rate of predicted refusal, 33%, came from Japan, a country where robotic technology has been well-received. Among those from China and India, only 3.1% and 7.8% said they'd avoid autonomous rides. That disparity begs further investigation.
At least there's hope motion sickness in self-driving cars can be mitigated. The report says that there are vehicle design options and video tricks available to reduce conflicts between visual and vestibular stimuli, the source of motion sickness.
Makers of self-driving vehicles may benefit by consulting with makers of virtual reality headsets, who are still working out how to best avoid making their customers sick. Oculus, Facebook's VR company, discusses some best practices in a 2013 blog post.
The TRI report also proposes behavior modification as an option. In other words, when you step into your self-driving car, just stow your phone before you hurl.
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