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Hailing a Robotic Taxi? Take a Motion Sickness Pill First

By Aaron Crowe

It may sound like science fiction, but a day will likely come when you’ll be able to hail a robotic taxi.

But that trip in a driverless car could lead to motion sickness, a queasy feeling that auto passengers can get on winding roads, for example, according to a new study. Drivers are less likely to suffer motion sickness because they have a better view while driving and can anticipate turns. Without a human driver in an autonomous car, everyone inside would have a greater chance of suffering motion sickness.

Google, Tesla Motors and Apple are among the companies trying to change the auto industry with electric cars that could pick up passengers and take them on a short ride to their destination. Analysts at Morgan Stanley Research recently told investors to expect a combining of the sharing economy and autonomous driving, creating a “shared autonomy” of competing robotic taxi services.

Self-driving cars — whether you use a taxi or own one — are expected to make roads safer while saving energy. But they can also make some people sick, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute.

Researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle found that in autonomous cars, switching from driver to passenger gives up control over the direction of motion can lead to more motion sickness. They also found that doing other activities in an autonomous car — such as reading, texting and watching TV — instead of driving would cause more motion sickness.

A survey done as part of the report found that 6-10 percent of U.S. adults riding in fully self-driving cars would be expected to often experience some level of motion sickness. They also found that 6-12 percent would have moderate or severe motion sickness at some time in the car.

What’s motion sickness?

Anyone who has driven on a winding road, such as the famous road to Hana in Maui, probably knows the effects of motion sickness. The driver is less likely to suffer it because he has the best field of vision and can anticipate how the car is going to move.

The driver’s vestibular system — where the inner ear and brain control balance and eye movements — is in sync. Without that control, you could suffer nausea and dizziness, with the most severe symptoms being vertigo and vomiting.

The same symptoms can be felt in a boat or plane, or on an amusement park ride, playing a virtual reality video game, or watching a 3D movie. Adults are more susceptible to motion sickness than children.

When in a moving vehicle, you don’t have the same sense of gravity, so you rely on your eyes, says Molly Harris, an occupational therapist in New York who works with people who suffer from motion sickness as a result of a head injury. If you’re moving your eyes to read while the vehicle is moving, it can cause motion sickness, Harris says.

What passengers do in self-driving cars

The University of Michigan researchers asked people what they would do in an autonomous car if they didn’t have to drive. They found that 23 percent of American adults wouldn’t ride in a self-driving car. Of those who would, 35 percent said they’d watch the road even though they wouldn’t be driving.

Ten percent said they’d read, 9.8 percent said they’d text or talk with friends and family, 6.8 percent said they’d sleep, 6 percent would watch movies or TV, and 4.8 percent would work. Those numbers include people who wouldn’t ride in self-driving vehicles. When they’re excluded, the numbers of people doing other activities increase.

Viewing video in a moving conventional vehicle increases the frequency and severity of motion sickness for adults by 15 percent, researchers found. When reading, the frequency increases to 26 percent, and the severity goes up to 32 percent.

Minimizing motion sickness

While there aren’t ways to overcome motion sickness by giving up control of the car as a driver, there are ways to remedies to the other causes — conflict between vestibular and visual inputs, and the ability to anticipate the direction of motion, researchers found.

They include large windows, computer or video displays that can be turned so the gaze is focused straight ahead, and transparent head-up displays.

Swivel seats aren’t recommended, and head motion should be restricted and fully reclining seats would allow passengers to lay down flat. A smoother ride and a larger cabin would also decrease motion sickness.

Medications can also help. However, the researchers found that the effectiveness varies, they could have undesirable side effects, and a user would have to take the drug well before getting in a robotic car.

The makers of Dramamine, a motion sickness medication, recommend taking it 30 minutes to one hour before a trip. There’s also a non-drowsy version of the drug.

“Most motion sickness sufferers say that if they are the ones driving and in control they do not experience motion sickness,” says Rich Tenore, director of product development for Prestige Brands, which makes Dramamine. “But with self-driving cars, they will now always be the passenger and may experience motion sickness symptoms, so it’s important to remember to treat and prepare for motion sickness in advance.”

Harris, the occupational therapist, says balance is another “use it or lose it” function of the body that can decrease with age. To avoid motion sickness, she suggests older people do more walking, yoga or pilates, and any “inverted positions” that require balance.

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for