3 Thoughts on Motion Sickness and Driverless Cars

Rinspeed XchangE: car that is an office and living room on wheels - 20 Feb 2014Driverless cars: A welcome technology that will make society much more productive, safe, and happy, OR a dangerous flirtation with a technology we will never be ready for any time soon? For your author, the answer has been very clear: driverless cars cannot come soon enough and should replace traditional cars ASAP. But then, I remembered something. Something that puts a kink in this plan, big time….

I get motion sickness.

If you ask me, half of the value in upgrading our infrastructure to driverless cars from the current piloted cars stems from all of the additional time we commuters will get back from each day. Of course, this depends on how much you actually do commute; personally, I spend on average about 1.5 – 2 hours of each day driving to and from work. This additional time, up to 25% of my nominal workday, would be an absolute windfall in terms of additional time that could potentially be used productively.

This past week, I traveled to Bethesda, MD for work. I arrived at Reagan National and used a ride sharing app to secure a ride to my hotel in Bethesda. During the ride, I spent some time in the backseat reading some emails, checking the news, looking at directions, and otherwise making extremely handy use of my cell phone and its many apps. But after ten minutes, I realized when lifting my head that there is a certain affliction I have always struggled with and never seem to grow out of.

motion-sicknessIt has prevented me from enjoying reading a novel on a long car ride, and is totally debilitating to my attempts to be a productive vehicle passenger. In classic fashion, I felt somewhat dizzy, somewhat sweaty and overheated, and a bit nauseous. And I didn’t feel better until I got to my hotel and had a chance to walk around outside for a few minutes. My motion sickness had once again prevented my potential for productivity in a situation where I didn’t need to drive, and with driverless cars on my mind these days I’ve realized that this issue completely disrupts my vision of a utopian driverless tomorrow (or ideally, today).

This leads us to three lines of thought on how to address motion sickness when designing and/or approaching driverless cars.

  1. Controlling the visual environment

    So, if you know a thing or two about motion sickness, you know that it is caused by a fundamental conflict in your visual perception. Namely, you start to feel sick and nauseous because you are visually focused on something close to you, such as a book, nook, laptop, cell phone, or what-have-you, which is stationery; meanwhile, your inner ear, which is responsible for your body’s sense of balance, is receiving conflicting information, both from the visual background of objects immediately outside the vehicle (which are rapidly moving around you), and from the physical sensation of moving, which is slight but real.

    To counteract this, we could take the approach of eliminating/minimizing the conflicting sensory input. This could take the form of closing off the passenger cabin from outside visual input, and/or designing the vehicle to minimize the sensation of movement during travel. You know, like in a limousine. For the everyday commuter, you probably would want a simpler layout that features more of a work desk setup instead of the cognac, and perhaps a more economical/minimalist choice of decor. Airplanes are also fairly good about this with the ability to shutter the window from outside light.


  2. Drugs

    dramamineThis is the good old U.S. of A., after all; we love solutions that come in pill form. In the transition to driverless cars, if auto makers are anything less than 100% on top of the kinds of feature design options we discussed in #1, above, we are probably going to see an increase in demand for drugs that treat motion sickness, such as Dramamine, Divertigo, Vertisil, Mirtazzapine, and the like. I’ll take the “pimp my ride [to be a mobile office]” solution over this any day of the week, but you would probably see me keep some of this kind of stuff handy in the car, just in case.

  3. Managing the Commute Routine

    Another option for combating the meddlesome effects of motion sickness on your newfound commute productivity while being driven by your automobile?: be mindful of the kinds of activities you work into your commute, and make a routine around the ones that a) fit into your schedule and routine best; b) make great use of the commute situation; and c) are less prone to disruption from motion sickness.

    In our article’s featured image, we see a couple being driven by their cars, luxuriating with both their seats reclined to the max, holding hands and enjoying what looks like a beautiful country sky with the sun hanging low, just above the horizon. How romantic!

    565878785.jpgThe car itself is designed for maximum visibility of the outdoor scenery, quite contrary to the design principles we advocated for with option #1. This would be an excellent setup for a cross-country road trip for a weekend getaway with that special someone, but doesn’t necessarily feel like the mode you want for your everyday commute as a high-power executive heading to and from your office location(s) or business meetings.

    That said, even after “The Upgrade” [to all driverless cars on the road, essentially making the entire auto infrastructure a sea of public transit-style transportation – yay!], there is likely going to be a lot of merit to the strategy that executives have already been using since the availability of the cell phone: pick and choose your in-vehicle activities wisely such that they make sense with your agenda, and your schedule.

    To avoid the onset of motion sickness, your strategy is to focus on activities where you can be looking out of the window at something far in the distance, as these objects move more slowly and will not be prone to the same kinds of sensory confusion that causes those sweats, dizziness, and nausea. This will involve things like planning phone calls with clients, partners, or employees, or even making calls to accomplish personal errands such as scheduling medical or financial appointments, remotely managing financial accounts, and the like. If your commute schedule is regular and/or significant enough, you could even develop a routine of standing conference calls and other check-ins built around the hours when you will be on the road.

    Here, a free-floating or built-in [to the upholstery] tablet or touch-screen may be a helpful tool to add some computing power to these conversations and facilitate things like video conferencing, live review of visual and report analytics, composing messages, etc. Now we are getting into some territory where you do run a bit more risk of motion sickness, but there may be some opportunity to use these devices sparingly in order to enhance the productivity of tasks that can primarily be done without focusing a majority of your visual attention on something within the cabin of the car while the outdoors zips by you at a jarringly, nausea-inducingly different rate.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, if it were up to me we would wake up tomorrow morning to a glorious utopia, one where all cars on the road were perfectly self-driving, in sync with one another, and perfectly subservient to our modern transportation and productivity needs. But of course, this idea is, as I’ve admitted, perhaps a bit too utopian for reality. We know there will be a whole series of pain points in the transition to driverless cars, especially around issues related to safety in a time where traditional and driverless cars share the roads with all their diversity from urban to rural settings.

But let’s hang out in my utopia for just a moment longer. Here, we each have our own driverless car that allows a range of outdoor visibility from practically “all windows” (meaning extensive sun/moonroof action, or possibly even a setting that turns the whole chassis transparent), to practically “no windows,” where we can close off the outside visual information and achieve a perfect mobile cubicle (a nice one, though). We would have some Dramamine on hand just in case, and while we’re at it let’s have a bottle of bubbly on standby for that next romantic getaway with the wife, or to celebrate that next big account coming in.

Heck, we might as well say the car can “go drone” and fly around airspace.

What are your thoughts on where things are headed for driverless cars? Do you get carsick? Does the above “utopia” sound like your dream come true, or a nightmare? Leave your comment below or on Twitter @UrDrewColors.


  1. Thanks Drew, fantastic post! I think that there could definitely be some cheap aftermarket auto-parts that could be equipped to create the peaceful scenario you describe in your first thought rather than having an expensive and customized interior. However, I found your third thought (adjusting personal habits to make better use of time) to be the most realistic. For centuries we’ve seen technology help to make our lives more efficient by streamlining our professional activities, and this could certainly be the way to keep pushing forward.

    To answer your questions, I believe that self driving cars are moving fast (no pun intended), but the reality is that they will not be able to thrive without the proper infrastructure, so the concept is still a few years out from mass introduction. I personally do not get carsick, but I have used dramamine for seasickness and it certainly works. Finally, I see the self-driving car revolution as a blessing and a curse. I am very excited about the possibilities, but as an auto-enthusiast I also hope that car culture doesn’t die out as a result.

    1. drewsimenson · ·

      Thanks, Mike! I think you hit the nail on the head: we actually like to drive. Even I can see myself a few months in to my utopia having a flash of desire for the control and sense of utter American rugged individualism that only a manually-driven car offers us. While I am currently “over it” in terms of feeling that thrill, I will always remember the excitement I felt when first learning to drive, and when I first drove my own new car off of the lot (I worked hard to save up for that thing!). And given that I’m nerdier than the average bear, I bet this phenomenon of folks not wanting to let go of the driver’s seat is indeed what will keep us from “The Upgrade,” probably for awhile!

  2. Great post! As someone who is fortunate enough not to have to deal with motion sickness, the issues self driving cars may cause for those susceptible to car sickness never crossed my mind. After reading your post, it is definitely an issue that must be taken into account, either by car manufacturers or the consumer. As self driving cars become more commonplace, I think fewer people will own their own cars, rather relying on community sharing. This sharing may cause some issues for those with motion sickness needs, but maybe there will be a way to personalize your experience for any ride. I’m just as excited as you for self driving cars, and I’m glad you brought up the possible issues with motion sickness.

    1. drewsimenson · ·

      Thanks, Ben! Will shared self-driving cars need to allow cubicle-like individual privacy to accommodate individuals wanting to be productive while someone else is seated next to them? You reminded me there’s this whole “sharing culture” layer that will have a major impact on what this looks like for us; here I am describing the vehicle as though I will still [want to] own it, when that’s probably not going to be the case all or most of the time.

  3. Really interesting post! Motion sickness seems like it could be quite a serious issue if/when self-driving cars become part of our society. I liked reading about the suggestions you had for how to solve this problem, and I would imagine that self-driving cars will indeed be designed with some types of limitations on conflicting sensory input.

  4. laurencondon23 · ·

    Great post! Similar to Ben, I also do not get motion sickness so this was an issue I had not considered when thinking about self-driving vehicles. I do believe this could be a major problem in the future for individuals who frequently drive themselves but I also think self-driving cars may help mediate the motion sickness they face now as passengers. Self-driving cars will hopefully be more controlled and driven better than the typical human driver, hopefully leading to less incidents of sickness for those susceptible!

  5. I think you make a really interesting point. I’m not someone who gets motion sick, so that thought has not occurred to me. My wife does, however, and I’m sure the benefits of autonomous cars would be wasted on her.

  6. fayehubregsen · ·

    If option #1 for driverless cars is anything like 3D movies, I might be a bit reluctant to opt for the “controlling the visual environment” experience. However, this virtual reality movement that big-wigs such as Zuckerberg are embracing head-on definitely opens up possibilities in the space. Ultimately, I would advocate for #3 – the car that maximizes visibility of the outdoor scenery – not only because I think the Jetson’s designed vehicle was ahead of its time, but also it might allow for some normalcy as it relates to the driverless car takeover.

  7. zfarkas17 · ·

    Great post! the idea of motion sickness canceling out the benefits of driverless cars wasnt even something I had thought of, but would definitely effect me. My biggest problem though is I fall asleep when I’m just a passenger and would have to find a way to stay awake. I think you did a great job laying out potential options for the driverless cars of the future, and overall a well thought out post.

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