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Uber Patent Could Combat Motion Sickness in Driverless Cars

by Justin Tejada
For people who have never ridden in a self-driving car, it's easy to imagine that the physical sensation is the same as a regular car, minus a human driver.

But that is not the case.

Unlike a train, plane or other forms of passive transportation, self-driving cars don't move in a particularly linear fashion. Riding in the "driver's" seat of an autonomous vehicle as it makes unexpected turns and stops can result in a serious case of motion sickness.

The fact that a passenger freed from keeping his or her eyes on the road will likely look down at the screen of a mobile device instead only compounds the chances of getting carsick. While far from the most serious challenge confronting AV engineers, it is nevertheless an important one since the already difficult task of changing consumer behavior and showing them that autonomous vehicles are a viable form of transportation only becomes harder if those consumers are constantly losing their lunch.

Uber, it seems, has already developed some ideas for how to minimize motion sickness for its autonomous vehicle passengers. A patent application filed by the company on November 2 proposes a series of potential solutions.

"With the advent of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, rider attention may be focused on alternative activities, such as work, socializing, reading, writing, task-based activities (e.g., organization, bill payments, online shopping, gameplay) and the like," reads the background section of the patent application. "As the AV travels along an inputted route, kinetosis (i.e., motion sickness) can result from the perception of motion by a rider for not corresponding to the rider's vestibular senses."

One proposal is a light system inside the car to alert passengers about the times and locations of the autonomous system's planned turns and brakes. It would be similar to the turn signals and brake lights on the outside of a car that currently allow human drivers to communicate their actions and intentions to others, but would instead be designed for riders inside the very car from whence the signals come. When turns and stops are anticipated, they're far less likely to disrupt a passenger's sense of orientation.

As the patent acknowledges, passengers may very well be engrossed in their own activities.

A rider deep into a novel could easily miss such light signals. So other ideas in the patent application would affect passengers whether they were attentive or not. Seats could subtly twist along with turns, counteracting the movement of the car. Seats could also provide haptic feedback, vibrating during braking to alert the passenger. Also proposed are airflow systems that would soothe riders and stimulate them in a way that distracted their body from the feeling of turns.

As Samuel Gibbs at The Guardian points out, research suggests varying degrees of effectiveness for these methods.

"A recent study published in Experimental Brain Research showed that airflow systems have been effective at reducing motion sickness, although seat vibration showed no improvement in testing," Gibbs writes.

Autonomous vehicles face bigger obstacles on the road to full implementation than the absolute comfort of passengers. But the fact that we've reached a point where this issue is now on the table means that we're closer to our autonomous future than ever before.



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