Does driving in a car already make you want to horf? Fear the rise of the autonomous, self-driving car. According to research at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, self-driving cars will make more people car sick than ever before.
This calls into question much of the design thinking around self-driving cars, and nip the idea of them becoming the office of the 21st Century in the bud. U. Mich researchers Michael Sivak and Brandson Shoettle asked more than 3,200 adults in the U.S, India, China, Japan, Great Britain, and Australia what they would spend their free time doing if they had a self-driving car. More than a third of Americans said they’d either be reading, texting, watching movies, playing games, or working, and those numbers are similar or greater internationally.
Designers, drawing on these same insights, have reacted accordingly. Automakers such as Mercedes, and design firms like RInspeed have envisioned cars where the front seats turn to face the back seats, creating a space for socializing. Ideo took this idea to its logical extreme and just put a conference room on wheels. But, Sivak and Schoettle says that self-driving cars shouldn’t have seats that swivel to face each other, if they don’t want their passengers to start blowing chunks.
Why would this be a problem? Well, if you’re prone to getting car sick, you know that looking at screens, reading, or not facing forward can seriously exacerbate the onset of nausea, compared to just staring ahead. It all has to do with the brain’s inability to anticipate the direction of motion that will be coming at it. That’s usually only an issue for passengers, but if you’ve got a self-driving car, even the nominal “driver” can have his head in a book or a screen the whole ride.
“Motion sickness is expected to be more of an issue in self-driving vehicles than in conventional vehicles,” Sivak said. “The reason is that the three main factors contributing to motion sickness—conflict between vestibular (balance) and visual inputs, inability to anticipate the direction of motion and lack of control over the direction of motion—are elevated in self-driving vehicles.
Ultimately, Sivak and Schoettle recommend a few design tweaks to self-driving vehicles to lessen the chance of passengers getting car sick. In addition to facing forward, autonomous vehicles should have larger windows than regular cars, to give people as much peripheral awareness of the outside of the car as possible. They should also mount transparent video and work displays that require passengers to face forward.