Consider how Spencer Salter spent the last two years, and the auto industry seems like a terrific business. The Jaguar Land Rover researcher rode on boats, trains, and planes. He hooked himself up for zip lines, braved roller coasters, flew in helicopters, and climbed into rally cars, all on company time and the company dime. But, “I made myself sick a lot of times,” Salter says.
The resulting vomit was not an unfortunate side effect of Ferris Beuller-esque adventures. It was the whole point. Salter is working to eliminate motion sickness for Jaguar’s customers, and he knows his Sun Tzu. “You can’t be a spectator on this,” he says. “You have to immerse yourself to understand it.” And the worst of all his experiences, for inducing vomit? The teacup ride at a local amusement park.
Some 70 percent of car passengers experience motion sickness, but there’s no scientific consensus on what causes the queasiness, or how to stamp it out. And it’s set to become more of an issue as cars go driverless, making everyone a passenger.
The amusement park let Salter ride while wearing multiple fitness tracking watches, a heart rate monitor and sensors to track his body temperature and galvanic skin response (that’s sweatiness, the same thing lie detectors measure). The point was to find the physical signals that come with queasiness, signals a car might be able to detect and account for. His research was initially for his PhD project—Salter is due to finish his doctorate at Coventry University in the UK in the next few months—but now Jaguar Land Rover is working on integrating a version of his work into its prototype cars.
Heart rate proved the most reliable indicator. Salter found that when he was on a high-adrenaline ride like a roller coaster, his heart rate would spike above 100. On the more sedate—but dreaded—teacups, it was usually around 80. But when he was vomiting, it plummeted to 32. (That’s a natural response—if something poisonous is to blame, best not to spread it around the body via the bloodstream.) A nuanced reading of heart rate and other data, Salter says, could be enough to figure out how someone is feeling.
Jaguar Land Rover says it’s using Salter’s work to generate “wellness scores” for passengers. It will use biometric sensors (it’s not ready to say exactly what yet, but imagine Apple Watch style heart rate sensors embedded in seats, along with cameras and temperature sensors) to keep an eye on passengers’ physiological readings. If the computer thinks someone’s feeling ill, it has a few options.
It can reduce the temperature, or adjust their seat to lift them a little more upright, for example. It might prompt the victim to lift their book or smartphone a bit higher—research shows being aware of the horizon helps a lot with nausea. It can stiffen up the suspension of the whole car, to prevent swaying, or just make one corner feel more rigid. Salter says just increasing the amount of road vibration temporarily can be enough to bring someone out of that slightly dazed, about-to-be-motion-sick state. The car could also make the steering less responsive (without risking safety), to calm down a driver who’s careering around a little too much. And as a last resort, maybe a smart car could open a window for easier barf ejection. Eventually cars could be clever enough to learn their passengers’ proclivities, and suggest navigation routes that avoid roads with sharp corners. And navigation data might be crucial to avoiding false readings: If the car knows that it’s leaving a gym, it might ignore temporarily high heart rate and sweat readings.
That last bit’s important, because physiological signs aren’t too reliable, says Thomas Stroffregen, a human motion researcher at the University of Minnesota. “Your heart rate goes up when you tell a lie, or when you fart or burp,” he says. “It’s a crude measure.” He believes watching how a passenger’s body moves is a better way to monitor potential sickness.
Salter’s research confirms movement is an issue. “If you watch the driver’s head, they will lean into the corner, the passenger will lean the other way,” he says. In his experience with rally cars, the driver never gets sick—he’s part of the control loop, he knows what the car’s going to do. The navigator in the passenger seat is fine, but only once he’s got the pace notes laying out the turns. “When they’re first creating those pace notes, they’re sick all the time.”
One day, when cars drive themselves, nobody will get to the privileged position of “driver,” and the imperfect, herky-jerky nature of the tech could make things harder. So maybe those autonomous concepts with the swiveling seats will remain fantasies. But the good news is that researchers are on the case, so you can save your vomit for the tea cups.