Feeling queasy? Anchor yourself.

Self-Driving Cars: Not for the Weak of Stomach

Posted on July 09 2015

The prospect of a self-driving car is one that has excited Americans for decades. According to an article in The Independent, this a car that allows the driver to sit back and relax, as the car steers itself. Aside from freeing up the driver, another potential benefit is safety; with human error no longer part of the equation, many people project that automatic cars will lead to lower collision rates. Environmentalists comprise another group that is optimistic towards this innovation; many of the cars in development are electric and do not require gas fuel. Since the technology for automatic vehicles already exist, these proponents of self-driving cars might have their wishes soon realized.

While other traditional carmakers have taken steps to increase automatic vehicle functions, Apple and Google are at the forefront of research and testing of self-driving electric cars. Since 2010, Google has applied its self-driving software to Lexus SUV’s and Toyota Prius vehicles, and driven a combined total of 1 million miles. Through test runs in multiple cities, Google hopes to eventually launch an environmentally friendly automatic car. According to PC Magazine, these vehicles are currently being tested in California, and soon Austin, Texas as well.

Check out these articles in PC Magazine and The Independent for full articles on the advancements in self-driving technology.

Despite such optimistic fascination, these vehicles will likely lead to uncomfortable, rather than productive or relaxing travel experiences. Many people are already susceptible to getting carsick; self-driving cars would likely exacerbate causes of motion sickness. As self-driving cars are becoming more of a reality, researchers and news sources have begun to express skepticism in the utility and benefits of this new technology.

Motion sickness is our body’s natural response to discrepancies in our sensory stimuli. Rupa Mukherjee, a Boston gastroenterologist details some of the science behind motion sickness in a blog post called, “Motion Sickness 101.” At the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, Professor Michael Sivak also addresses sources of motion sickness, particularly carsickness. Wired, The Daily Mail and Popular Mechanics all quote Professor Sivak's three main drivers of motion sickness as “conflict between vestibular (balance) and visual inputs, inability to anticipate the direction of motion, and lack of control over the direction of motion.” In a typical car, the driver is best positioned to mitigate these reasons for nausea, because he has the greatest ability to anticipate and control his motion. However, in a self-driving car, the driver is freed from the burden of managing the road. Not only are the causes of nausea then exacerbated, but a recent survey discussed in these two articles also suggests that rather than driving, people in these vehicles would engage in activities that encourage motion sickness.

The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute surveyed 3,200 people across the world, and found that if freed from driving, many individuals would perform nausea-inducing activities in their cars instead. Certain activities, such as reading, texting, watching movies/TV, playing games, and working increase the likelihood and severity of motion sickness. More than 33% of Americans, more than 50% of Indians, 40% of Chinese, and up to 30% of Japanese people in the survey said that they would engage in such activities in self-driving cars.

While there might be real safety and environmental benefits to electric self-driving cars, carmakers should be ready to address the increased risk of motion sickness. Motion sickness can severely damage the practical utility of self-driving vehicles, despite best intentions towards safety and environmental conditions. For more information on the causes of motion sickness and increased risks in self-driving cars, click on these articles in Wired, The Daily Mail, and Popular Mechanics.

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