Motion sickness remains an unappreciated obstacle to consumer acceptance

Relax in a vehicle and read a book, stream video or drift into a well-deserved nap. Or sit at a mobile desk and do some work. These are the promised advantages of travel in a self-driving era. But for more than a few passengers, any attempts to crack open a novel or watch a favorite TV show might result in a frantic search for a barf bag.

As automakers and tech developers spout promises of a fanciful future in which motorists trade the tedium of commuting for newfound free time in their vehicles, concern is growing that many passengers will be unable to reap the benefits.

Motion sickness may prevent millions of riders from enjoying the leisure and entertainment benefits self-driving technology is supposed to bring. In a 2016 study, “Would Self-Driving Vehicles Increase Occupant Productivity?” 8 percent of respondents told University of Michigan researchers that they expect to “frequently experience” motion sickness — and they’re the ones who know they’re susceptible.

Once self-driving vehicles arrive, the percentage of afflicted occupants likely will be higher, warns Michael Sivak. He co-authored the Michigan study and now is an independent consultant and researcher. Drivers are mostly immune from motion sickness, he says, because they’re watching the road and receiving visual information that matches information sensed in the inner ear. A conflict between the two results in nausea, headaches and vomiting.

“When autonomous vehicles become more of a reality, we realize that now everyone is going to be a passenger,” Sivak says, “and that potential pool of people who might be subject to motion sickness has greatly increased.”

Automakers aren’t overlooking the crimp this could put in their plans for self-driving vehicles. In addition to further honing their technology and navigating an assortment of laws and regulatory policies, they’re preparing to combat the problem.

Forget asking riders to take Dramamine before every trip. Their solutions range from chassis innovations to more unusual measures, such as the use of light pulses that flash in an occupant’s peripheral vision and redesigned vents that blast occupants with fresh air when algorithms detect the onset of motion sickness.

About half of the money invested in vehicle interiors focuses on driver happiness, says Guillaume Peronnet, vice president of strategy at Faurecia. But with self-driving cars, that will change.

“The focus is shifting: The passenger is becoming the customer,” he says. Automakers and suppliers will have to work on detecting the potential for motion sickness before it happens, he says, by knowing more about the passengers and more about what is happening on the road.

With nearly three quarters of Americans afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles, according to studies, keeping those interested in the technology healthy enough to use it will be crucial.