Lie down! – Fighting motion sickness

Kinetosis is a very common ailment. According to an internal investigation, around half of the population has had a personal experience of nausea when travelling by vehicle. At Daimler, I am working at the possibilities of improving the wellbeing of all passengers in our vehicles – and reducing the occurrence of kinetosis.

In the future, when cars will be automated, the person in the driver’s seat will be able to keep busy with activities other than steering. This new freedom is likely to result in a rapid increase in the number of cases of Kinetosis. That’s because those who pass the journey time by reading, watching movies, playing video games or working on a tablet in the car have a relatively high chance of getting car sick. Kinetosis, better known as motion sickness, can have different symptoms. These range from fatigue, exhaustion and loss of interest, to cardiovascular problems and vomiting.

Why do we get sick?

Kinetosis is not a new problem: In 200 BC, during the Second Punic War, the first images appeared depicting the physiological effect of motion sickness. Due to the increasing amount of mobility options and constant viewing of smartphone screens, the issue has become particularly relevant in recent years. Why we become sick on ships, in trains with tilting technology, on turbulent flights or on longer motorway drives, has not yet been thoroughly researched. There are a few different theories.

One widespread theory suggests that motion sickness occurs when our brain receives different signals than our sensory organs – for example, when it receives contradictory information about our spatial position and the motions our bodies are subjected to. Only very few people have never experienced this kind of sickness – either first hand or on journeys with children. Until the age of 12 or 13, we are particularly susceptible to motion sickness. One reason for this is that the organ of equilibrium is still growing in that age, and the sensory system is particularly sensitive. With age, susceptibility decreases, but most people never lose it completely.

Assessing all the factors

But, there is hope: On the one hand, the vehicle concepts division of Mercedes-Benz is already taking the prevention of kinetosis into account in the early development phase of its products. On the other hand, we are working on further development approaches to reduce the unpleasant symptoms of kinetosis, or in some cases, even prevent it completely. Now, with the arrival of the age of autonomous driving, these new findings are particularly valuable.

In future, we want to offer our customers an even more comfortable travel experience – especially if they are able to use their time in the car differently than before. During a car journey, different factors increase the risk of motion sickness: What physical forces act on the passengers? What is the temperature and how good is the air quality on board? What are the lighting conditions during nighttime journeys? We tried to answer these questions. A further piece of the puzzle in preventing the symptoms of kinetosis is the seating position. We have intensively researched this during the past few months and integrated our findings in our development efforts.

The brain is overloaded

As part of a study with 25 test subjects (age: 21 to 56), we equipped a test vehicle with a special seating system in the back: This allowed participants to sit upright (23-degree incline) or reclined (38-degree incline) while performing certain secondary tasks with varying dynamics and required levels of attentiveness. The test subjects were asked to complete a quiz on a tablet, watch a movie, read and play an action game while the test vehicle travelled along a defined test route.

After each round, there was a short break, during which we asked about their personal wellbeing and conducted a performance test. As expected, the concentration-heavy game caused the highest levels of vertigo and motion sickness in most of the test subjects.

Tip: Lying helps the body

The reclining position resulted in a significant reduction in motion sickness, and was also considered particularly comfortable – and subjective performance was demonstrably increased in this relaxed position, as well. Stop-and-go traffic, on the other hand, was found to be particularly uncomfortable and an aggravating factor in kinetosis. The reclining positing is beneficial for preventing motion sickness, as the active stabilisation of the head is reduced when the backrest is at a flat angle.

Tests in our driving dynamics simulator, in which we examined the motion and vibration characteristics in different seating positions, produced similar results. In the S-class, our executive seats already offer this option for customers: The back seats can be adjusted to a reclining angle of 43.5 degrees.

From driver to passenger

The mobility of the future is changing and so are the wishes of our customers. We do not only want to be prepared for the demands of the future – we also want to shape this transformation. This is why already today we are working on new interior concepts, together with colleagues from different departments. Our goal is to transform the vehicle into a habitat in its own right. The prevention of kinetosis is an important part of these considerations.

It sounds like a dream of the future, but it is not so far-fetched that our automobiles will soon make the following suggestion to passengers, even before kinetosis symptoms appear: “Take a relaxed lying position!”


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Dominique Bohrmann is an employee at the Vehicle Concepts Center of Daimler AG and a doctoral student at the Technical University of Munich. He develops measures to predict and prevent car Sickness.