Traveling by car is becoming more comfortable all the time, but one thing doesn’t seem to go away: travel sicknesses. Vehicle makers and suppliers are working with scientists to understand its causes and develop remedies – including some in self-driving vehicles.
We’ve all had it or seen it: a feeling of sickness or dizziness, especially on longer car journeys. It’s more common in children than in adults. One reason for children’s susceptibility to travel sickness is that the vestibular system, which is responsible for our sense of balance, is still developing and is very sensitive. We become less prone to travel sickness as we get older, but in most people it doesn’t disappear completely. Many find that reading or working is impossible while traveling in a car. This is a chronic problem for 30 million people in Europe alone. One third of the population suffers the unpleasant symptoms at some time in their lives. Travel sickness (also known as kinetosis) occurs when the body is exposed to unfamiliar or uncontrolled movements. It is caused by a mismatch when the sense organs send the brain contradicting information about the spatial surroundings and the body’s movements – i.e. the visual information from the eyes does not match the information about orientation and balance. It can happen when the passenger is concentrating on a screen or a book, for example. In this situation the human body reacts like it does to an ingested poison, with symptoms ranging from slight malaise to severe nausea.
In a study by Berlin’s Charité teaching hospital, over 40 percent of respondents reported suffering from travel sickness during a car journey at least once. Researchers in a joint project at the Charité and the Technical University of Berlin are investigating the connection between symptoms and automated driving, and ways of alleviating the problems. A special rotating chair is used to record and analyze the participants’ facial expressions in order to identify recurring patterns. Certain driving situations are also simulated in experimental vehicles. To recognize passengers’ symptoms at an early stage and to develop technical solutions, the supplier ZF is also researching the phenomenon with scientists at the Saarland University and the University of Applied Sciences in Saarbrücken. The experts have already conducted several analyses to identify the more frequent physiological reactions when participants experience subjective symptoms, and what the connection is with vehicle movements. The cooperation partners used a special motion sickness research vehicle containing an array of sensors. The subjects wore portable head and body sensors that monitored and recorded a large number of parameters such as body temperature and the conductivity of the skin. A powerful computer evaluated the nervous system using data from thermography, imaging and vehicle dynamics.
The research has shown at least one thing: everybody reacts to vehicle motion differently and has a different interpretation of a comfortable ride. ZF now wants to develop a system enabling vehicles to recognize travel sicknesses without physical contact with the occupant. Cars should be able to recognize the early symptoms and take measures to address them. An algorithm based on artificial intelligence analyzes the reactions of the passenger’s body and creates a personal profile. In this way the system can anticipate when the passenger will feel unwell. It then informs the driver, who has a chance to adapt his/her driving style. In the future, the information could also be forwarded to the control system of an automated vehicle that would adjust its driving style by changing the settings for the chassis and the speed. Jaguar Land Rover is already developing a “feel-good mode” for autonomous driving. The technology helps “teach” vehicles how to drive autonomously with reference to a personalized driving style, while maintaining individual characteristics of each model. A program for this purpose combines the data from over 32,000 test kilometers of driving in order to calculate driving parameters. According to the British manufacturer, the algorithms can reduce the factors that make vehicle occupants feel unwell by up to 60 percent.
One piece of the puzzle when it comes to preventing motion sickness is the position of the seats. The supplier Faurecia is working on innovative seat designs intended to actively prevent symptoms from appearing in the first place. Its Advanced Versatile Structure seat and a special armrest should improve the level of comfort for all the occupants. Adjusting the supports brings the head and upper body into an upright position so that the passenger’s surroundings are also registered in the peripheral vision even when his/her gaze is fixed on a screen, and this makes it much easier for the brain to adapt to changes in motion. The separate armrest on the lap enables the front passenger to read a book or watch a movie while looking ahead. How does it work? The higher arm position enables the passenger to simultaneously take in information about the surroundings, which prevents a mismatch of the movement sensed by the body and visual information from the eyes.
Daimler is also researching the connection between sitting behavior and motion sickness. In one of its studies, a test vehicle was equipped with a special seating system in the passenger compartment so the participants could either sit upright or recline at an angle of 38 degrees. While traveling they had to complete a quiz on a tablet, watch a movie, read and play an action game. Frequent stop-and-go urban traffic was found to be unpleasant, while the computer game caused the highest levels of discomfort. The central finding was that the reclining position significantly reduced the symptoms of kinetosis.
The French auto maker Citroën is pursuing a different line of investigation and, together with Seetroën, has developed a pair of eyeglasses to relieve travel sickness. The idea came originally from the start-up Boarding Glasses, which designed eyeglasses to tackle seasickness. A blue liquid inside transparent rings in front of and beside the user’s eyes creates an artificial horizon that resolves the conflict between the sense organs. This means that the glasses work without lenses. As soon as symptoms start to appear, the user should put the glasses on and wear them for up to twelve minutes. During this period, the brain synchronizes the movements sensed by the inner ear and the signals arriving from the eyes while the gaze is directed toward an immovable object such as a book. Then the eyeglasses can be taken off again. It must be said, though, that these glasses are functional rather than aesthetic.
Stage photo: © 2020 Adobe / Daniel Jędzura
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