motion cThere are autonomous vehicles and there are people who throw up in vehicles. Will people who suffer motion sickness throw up in autonomous vehicles? Going by my personal experience I would suggest that, yes, of course they will. Nevertheless the question is at last being examined and research by a team at the University of Michigan has yielded a bonus; an explanation for motion sickness that, if a little out there, at least makes sense.

I am one of that five to ten per cent of the adult population that suffers from motion sickness. Unlike my smartarse brother, my sister and I never grew out of it like most kids do although we did improve somewhat as we got older.

motion dBack then I would ask that ultimate source of all knowledge, my mum, how come I got sick in cars when other kids didn’t and the answer usually included advice about the over-consumption of lollies and ice cream. My dad, who was always the driver, became so fed up that he’d just tell us to wind the window down and puke down the side of the car so he didn’t have to stop. These days when I ask for an explanation of motion sickness from sources less severe it’s usually something about the inner ear. And it concludes with something like; that’s the way it is, deal with it.

(Aside: An optometrist in Darwin once told me that there’s a strong correlation between people who suffer motion sickness and people who find bifocal glasses entirely off-putting and that’s certainly the case with me.)

motion aOkay, so let’s assume autonomous cars are no different and me and my five to ten per centers will throw up in them. The very first question we therefore ask about self-driving cars is one that does not occur to that other 90 to 95 per cent of the population: Can I tell the damn thing to stop so I can have a good, solid upchuck? Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, clever people at University of Michigan, think they may have a device that will render this question obsolete. They think they can mitigate our malady, if not cure it altogether.

According to a study by these guys 23 per cent of Americans say they will never ride in an autonomous vehicle and an additional 36 per cent say they’ll ride in one, but will not take their eyes off the road. A good deal of these people, they suggest, will be looking out the window because it helps to avoid motion sickness. Which has led them to think deeply about motion sickness.

They say it is caused by conflicting signals to the brain. If you’re reading in a car your eyes tell your brain that you’re stationary because the book you’re looking at isn’t moving relative to you. But your inner ear is telling your brain that you are moving. Positively screaming it in fact. This, according to the theorists, leads your brain to believe that you’re hallucinating, and it figures that if you’re hallucinating you must have ingested something seriously weird so let’s get rid of that quick smart; stick you head out the window and vomit down the side of the car, there’s a good lad.

(Aside: Do hallucinogenic drugs, therefore, cause people prone to motion sickness to vomit? Maybe this is why people vomit when they get seriously drunk because, as Dean Martin once observed, you know you’re seriously drunk when you’re lying face down on the floor and you still have to hang on.)

motion bThese guys have come up with the idea of a small array of lights to appear at the periphery of a sufferer’s vision that can be seen no matter what you may be doing – on the inner rim of a pair of glasses, for example or on the underside of a baseball cap’s peak. These, hooked up to clever motion detectors, would mimic the velocity, roll, pitch and yaw of the vehicle, provoking a visual response to the brain that would convince it that neither the eyes nor the inner ears are telling untruths.

They suggest such arrays could also be fitted to the interiors of vehicles, especially autonomous vehicles, thereby reducing cleaning costs for taxis, ubers, buses, trains and maybe even cruise ships, although they say aircraft and ships move entirely differently to cars.

I would like these guys to note right now that when they call for volunteers to test their idea I shall not be among them. I have tried every cure for motion sickness known to science (and a few entirely unknown to science) and I do not intend to try another until they can answer the following question to my satisfaction: People do not read books on roller coasters, so how come people throw up on roller coasters?

Published February 2018


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