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Startup ClearMotion Has a Cure for Autonomous Carsickness

by Stephen Lawson
The idea of riding in a self-driving car makes a lot of people queasy. The reality might actually make them sick.

Autonomous vehicles are expected to cause more motion sickness than human-driven ones, which makes sense if you think about a long ride in a car with a mind of its own -- especially if you're looking down at a phone or a tablet the whole time. ClearMotion, a Massachusetts startup, claims it has a way to smooth things over.

It's not the biggest challenge facing AVs, but companies that want to get everyone into these cars are taking it seriously.

Last year, Uber applied for patents on several proposals to combat motion sickness in driverless cars, including rider alerts, refreshing airflow systems and tilting seats. The University of Michigan has proposed special glasses. ClearMotion, which is funded partly by Qualcomm Ventures and is working with Bridgestone, uses the suspension to smooth out the ride.

Carsickness happens when one part of the body (such as the inner ear) senses movement while another (such as vision) doesn't. Cars often make motions that riders don't see coming, such as pitching forward, rolling from side to side, and heaving up and down. Passengers who can't see where the car is going because they're looking at a book or a device get it worst. Drivers tend to suffer less because they're watching the road closely and know when they're going to brake or turn.

Because an AV has no driver, those motions are out of anyone's control. And riders expect to use devices more in a driverless car because one of its selling points is productivity: The chance to work or watch a movie during your commute. Not much chance of that if you're busy trying to keep your lunch down.

ClearMotion's technology, called Proactive Ride, is designed to minimize unsettling motions by sensing them ahead of time and counteracting them. The company compares it to noise-cancelling headphones. The system uses software, accelerometers and actuators attached to the car's shock absorbers that push and pull the wheels to counteract movements.

For example, if a wheel hits a bump in the road, the system quickly lifts it over the bump rather than letting the impact upset the chassis. It can do this more effectively than conventional shock absorbers or even today's active suspension systems can, according to ClearMotion.

Like other advanced automotive systems based on sensors and data, Proactive Ride will be able to pool information about road conditions from many vehicles, Wired reports. Then cars going over a given stretch of road will know about the bumps and potholes there and cities can be told what needs to be fixed.

Proactive Ride isn't available yet, but ClearMotion says it's testing the system with six partners, on different brands of vehicles, MIT Technology Review reports. And for carsickness sufferers who don't want to wait until 2030, or whenever AVs are easily available, it may appear on human-driven cars first.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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