Will self-driving cars make us queasy?

"Motion sickness is expected to be more of an issue in self-driving vehicles than in conventional vehicles," says Michael Sivak. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Self-driving vehicles should make roads safer and save energy, but they also might make some people sick.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute asked more than 3,200 adults in the US and five other countries (India, China, Japan, Great Britain, and Australia) what kinds of activities—many of which could cause motion sickness—they would do instead of riding in a fully self-driving vehicle.

More than a third of Americans say they would do things that increase the likelihood and severity of motion sickness—reading, texting, watching movies or television, playing games, or working.

More than half of Indians, 40 percent of Chinese, and 26-30 percent of adults in Japan, Great Britain, and Australia say they would engage in these kinds of activities.

The result? About 6-12 percent of American adults riding in fully self-driving vehicles would be expected to experience moderate or severe motion sickness at some time. Similar percentages would also apply to residents in India, China, Japan, Great Britain, and Australia.

“Motion sickness is expected to be more of an issue in self-driving vehicles than in conventional vehicles,” Sivak says.

“The reason is that the three main factors contributing to motion sickness—conflict between vestibular (balance) and visual inputs, inability to anticipate the direction of motion, and lack of control over the direction of motion—are elevated in self-driving vehicles.

“However, the frequency and severity of motion sickness is influenced by the activity that one would be involved in instead of driving.”


The report finds that more than 60 percent of Americans would watch the road, talk on the phone, or sleep while riding in a self-driving vehicle—activities that would not necessarily lead to motion sickness. The percentage is roughly the same for China; higher in Japan, Great Britain, and Australia; and lower in India.

Sivak and Schoettle suggest that manufacturers can design self-driving vehicles to lessen the likelihood of motion sickness: maximize the visual field with large, transparent windows; mount transparent video and work displays that require passengers to face forward; and eliminate swivel seats, restrict head motion, and install fully reclining seats.

Source: University of Michigan