People get carsick as passengers? Shocking!

Earlier this week I was sent some advance research from the U of Michigan about car sickness rates for car passengers. I found the research of interest, but wish it had covered some questions I think are more important, such as how carsickness is changed by potentially new types of car seating, such as face to face or along the side.

To my surprise, there was a huge rush of press coverage of the study, which concluded that 6 to 12% of car passengers get a bit queasy, especially when looking down in order to read or work. While it was worthwhile to work up those numbers, the overall revelation was in the “Duh” category for me, I guess because it happens to me on some roads and I presumed it was fairly common.

Oddly, most of the press was of the “this is going to be a barrier to self-driving cars” sort, while my reaction was, “wow, that happens to fewer people than I thought!”

Having always known this, I am interested in the statistics, but to me the much more interesting question is, “what can be done about it?”

For those who don’t like to face backwards, the fact that so many are not bothered is a good sign — just switch seats.

Some activities are clearly better than others. While staring down at your phone or computer in your lap is bad during turns and bumps, it may be that staring up at a screen watching a video, with your peripheral vision very connected to the environment, is a choice that reduces the stress.

I also am interested in studying if there can be clues to help people reduce sickness. For example, the car will know of upcoming turns, and probably even upcoming bumps. It could issue tones to give you subtle clues as to what’s coming, and when it might be time to pause and look up. It might even be the case that audio clues could substitute for visual clues in our plastic brains.

The car, of course, should drive as gently as it can, and because the software does not need a tight suspension to feel the road, the ride can be smoother as well.

Another interesting thing to test would be having your tablet or phone deliberately tilt its display to give you the illusion you are looking at the fixed world when you look at it, or to have a little “window” that shows you a real world level so your eyes and inner ears can find something to agree on.

More advanced would be a passenger pod on hydraulic struts able to tilt with several degrees of freedom to counter the turns and bumps, and make them always be such that the forces go up and down, never side to side. With proper banking and tilting, you could go through a roundabout (often quite disconcerting when staring down) but only feel yourself get lighter and heavier.

Driving style

Used to suffer horribly from carsickness as a kid. The tricks mentioned do work, like look deliberately out the front window rather than side or rear ones, don't read or play games, lie down if possible, sip ice water.

Since growing up and being able to describe to someone how to drive to prevent passenger carsickness, there are different tricks. Mostly, no accelerating hard into straightaways and then braking hard before or during turns. Take the front-back acceleration out of it and the side-to-side acceleration of going around a turn fast can actually be fun.

Self-driving cars ought to be particularly good at implementing such an algorithm. They don't get frustrated by curves "slowing them down" and don't feel compelled to make up for it by jamming the gas at every opportunity. They don't ride the bumper of everyone in front to "push them along", only to brake hard every time the slow driver does. They know the optimal line through every curve and don't brake halfway through an underestimated turn.

These driving style modifications amount to a low pass filter on acceleration. It wouldn't apply at highway entrances or emergency maneuvers. Elsewhere it might enable reading in the car for people who normally couldn't tolerate it. Underpowered cars like the Prius get this feature for free even with a human driver.

Bad press

I read this story and thought it sounded like there was little in it. There is something not quite right surveying people who have never been in a driverless car and extrapolating their car sickness history and then applying it to driverless cars. A far better study would be to actually use two control groups as passengers and use real driverless cars and cars with a driver.(Assuming driverless cars could be made available)

There was also no mention of peoples ability to adapt. As someone who used to easily get seasickness, I persevered when I joined a volunteer marine rescue unit and now rarely have problems. Could the same adaptations apply to car travel with your head looking down at a tablet?

I note that the two authors of this study, Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of the research group "Sustainable Worldwide Transportation" under UMTIR of Michigan University did another study about a month ago that received a similar level of press coverage. It was reported in Bloomberg Business and elsewhere under the title "Dirty Downside to Driverless Cars Revealed in Study" This study suggested that "Bloomberg... They'll consume more energy than cars with drivers".

It is good to have people doing this research. As the UMTIR is dedicated to improving safety and saving lives, and one of the arguments in favour of driverless cars is the millions of lives they possibly may save, we need sort out the issues facing driverless cars as soon as possible. We need Goldilocks timing, take the time to get the safety right but not too long that the current mass death of road users is extended unnecessarily.

Comparison studies

I'd like to see comparison studies of motion sickness in trains and busses (and airplanes as well, I guess, though they're not as directly comparable).

I would guess that incidences of motion sickness on trains, busses, and planes are greatly reduced compared to cars.

I still contend that the ideal combination for long distances that are just under the threshold where taking a flight is best would be driverless cars for the first- and last-mile and then high-speed trains for the long haul in the middle. The mode changes are mitigated by the higher speed of the train making the total journey time shorter. Plus you can stand up and move about on a train while it's moving, which is much healthier than sitting in a single seat in a car for hours; and there are onboard restrooms and snack bars. While a car can pull off to the side of the road at a rest stop so you can get out, walk around, use the restroom, get food, etc., this is roughly equivalent to a mode change. So any car journey long enough for two or more rest stops decidedly loses out to a high-speed train with two mode changes and first- and last-mile door-to-door cars at the ends. Any arguments about mode changes interrupting your work/reading/video viewing in a driverless car can just as easily be made about using rest stops.

I'd also be interested in studies about the percentages of passenger miles traveled on longer trips that are taken by solo travelers or couples versus groups of three or more. For groups of three or more there's a bit more incentive to taking a car versus a train or plane, due to the increased efficiency of the use of the vehicle, social/seating aspects, reduced hassles with luggage, etc. There could be a happy medium, where solo travelers and pairs are inclined towards high-speed trains, reducing the total number of cars on the road, which would make the journeys for larger groups in cars actually more pleasant due to the reduced traffic!

Also interesting is this recent article:

7 Cities That Are Starting To Go Car-Free

So with some cities discouraging car usage and making it easier to get around without needing a car at all, the incentive of having your own vehicle with you at either end when you're traveling between cities is greatly reduced.


Trains tend to do better in part because the ride is pretty smooth, no sharp turns, just a little wobbling side to side most of the time, no bumps. Bus is not nearly as good.

Understand that cars today are designed with tight suspensions so the driver can feel the road. Robocars have no such need.

Trains have the problem that everybody has to be going the same way at the same time. And they tend to be scheduled, which means they leave full or barely full, which destroys their energy efficiency, unfortunately. But mostly people want to travel on their own schedule, and they want to go from A to B, not from the train station near A to the train station near B. And they don’t want to stop at all the places on the way. So this cancels out those lovely advantages of trains — smooth ride, ability to get up and move around — that you mention.

Not just not tight

Autonomous cars can not only eliminate tight suspensions, they can have computer actuated active suspensions. These can in theory improve performance (as in F1), or if someone gets car sick easily perhaps they can smooth the ride more.

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