Motion sickness: Why sick simulators will make for a smoother ride for everyone

Are you one of those people who starts to feel queasy in a car if you read a book or watch a movie on a tablet? You’re not alone – car sickness is incredibly common – but you are suffering from a phenomenon that has the chance to increasingly affect us all in the future. You see, if, as is widely expected, autonomous, robotic cars become much more common in the next couple of decades, there’s going to be a lot more time spent behind the wheel with nothing to do.
That’s essentially why Google is investing such a huge amount of money in developing fully robotic cars, cars that will have no steering wheel nor pedals but just seats and two buttons – one for go and one for stop.

The commuting vehicle

Google doesn’t want, specifically, to become the next Ford or Volkswagen, and nor is it really trying to put existing car makers out of business. But it has identified a huge gap in the marketplace. Millions, potentially billions of people, commuting to and from work who cannot, legally, use a mobile device to look at stuff on the internet while they’re driving.
Google’s plan has been dressed up in layers of altruism – it’s all about reducing accidents and putting mistake-free computers in charge of driving instead of fallible humans – but make no mistake; this is a business opportunity for the internet giant. If by providing robot cars Google can place us on our commutes with nothing to do, then we’ll turn to our phones, laptops and tablets to look for something to while away the time. And that means revenue for Google.

Motion sickness

Motion Sickness 3 Except of course for a large numbers of us who struggle to look at a page or a screen when in a moving vehicle. Motion sickness is caused when the images we see fall out of sync with the movement we feel. It’s why, say, reading a book or watching a video while a passenger in a car can make us feel queasy - as there is a disconnect between what we’re looking at and the feeling of the road bumping beneath the seat and trees zipping by in our peripheral vision. It can also happen when playing with virtual reality for the same reasons.
Motion sickness is already a problem for many passengers - and when we all become passengers, it seems inevitable that it’ll get worse. In fact, experts are already predicting that between 6% and 12% of Americans can expect to get sick travelling in an autonomous vehicle.

New technology to assist

Motion Sickness 2But there is some good news: Car manufacturers today are already working on designing vehicles that will mitigate motion sickness, and they are using driving simulator technology from a UK-based company called Ansible Motion to do it.
The simulator is different to the sort that powers driving games or trains pilots. According to Ansible Motion’s Technical Liaison, Phil Morse, this type of simulator, called “Driver in the Loop,” is “dynamics-class”. This means that it isn’t just for measuring human reactions, like other types of automotive driving simulators or how a flight simulator for training pilots might be - but thanks to some sophisticated engineering, it can be used to virtually prototype vehicles and different on-car components.
“Our own simulation methodology, by default, inserts a layer of controllable sensory content - for motion, vision, haptic feedback, and so on,” Morse says. Normally, there are no modifications made to this “layer” of the simulation, but he indicates that one way of studying motion sickness is figuring out how to induce it deliberately, by tweaking the simulator’s settings. “This can be a useful way to explore human sensitivities while people are engaged in different tasks inside a car. And then the understanding of these sensitivities can wrap back around and inform the real vehicle design,’ he explains.

Further hybrid opportunities

Motion Sickness 4There’s another layer to all this and it’s potentially more important than keeping the dry-heaves at bay. Simulators such as the Ansible one can play a crucial role in developing the interim driving setups that will have to come alongside full automation. Put it this way; we already know how to make driver-in-control cars. We also already know how to make computer-in-control cars, albeit they’re only at an early stage of development. What we’re not too good at yet is creating a car that can seamlessly do both, that can without upset or concern turn from computer control to driver control and back again. The injection of a human element adds an extra layer of complication - as unlike machines we are often unpredictable. So computer systems need to be designed to work with all of our quirks and flaws. But given this, the introduction of driving simulators to the design process should be a good sign - as not only will they help autonomous vehicles cope with the things that make us human, but they’ll help make travelling a better experience all together.
Better let the kids stick to the video games, so. Simulators are going to be big business in the next decade…