Here's How Uber Wants To Prevent People From Barfing In A Self-Driving Car

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Barf is one of the many problems that need to be addressed before driverless robotaxis hit the road, and Uber—which just placed a massive order for 24,000 autonomous cars—recently laid out plans for a system aimed at preventing you or I from getting motion sickness while being ferried around in a self-driving car.


As more passengers pile into driverless cars, Uber’s expecting them to be more focused on activities completely unrelated to driving—reading, writing, paying bills, even, yes, drinking—with the end result being an uptick of motion sickness.


Of course, barfing’s no fun, so Uber laid out a system to combat motion sickness in a patent published earlier this month—and first noticed by the Telegraph. It features vibrating seats, light systems, and the air conditioner.

“The sensory stimulation system can include a number of output devices to provide visual, audio, tactile and/or any combination of vestibular simulation for AV riders to counter, reactively and/or proactively, the sensor effects cause by AV motion can potentially lead to [motion sickness],” the patent stated.

Here’s how it’d work, according to the Telegraph:

Uber’s system involves alerting passengers that the car will brake or turn a corner one or two seconds before it happens so they are prepared.

This includes a strip light which flashes, signalling a turn in direction or lane change, along with seats that vibrate in different places: buzzing one half for a left turn and vice versa.


Additionally, haptic seat technology could “provide vibrational or other tactile feedback” by way of the seats, according to the patent. This could include vibrational pulses to the entire seat, or certain parts of the body.

Part of Uber’s effort here is to garner the public’s trust in self-driving cars, believe it or not. And it makes sense. As it currently stands, more than half the U.S. population doesn’t think they would take a ride in a driverless car. People need to feel comfortable, and safe, in a driverless car—and this is one way Uber’s trying to achieve just that, said Molly Nix, the user experience design lead at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group.


“This is one example of something that’s increasing comfort in the vehicle,” Nix said.

The most interesting aspect of the motion sickness system could be the use of a customized air conditioning system, which the patent says could “provide air flow simulations to the riders from multiple directions and at different intensities.”


“For example, when the [autonomous vehicle] is about to brake, the sensory simulation system can utilize the airflow system to modify airflow within the cabin (e.g., change from rearward airflow to forward airflow),” the patent stated.

It may seem pedantic, but these granular details and concepts need to be considered in order for self-driving cars to be successful. (Really, we can’t have people throwing up all the time in the cars of the future.) Uber has given 30,000 rides to passengers in self-driving cars (with an engineer at the driver’s seat) as part of pilot programs operating in Phoenix and Pittsburgh, so it’s already garnered a significant amount of insight into how people respond to autonomous vehicles.


The company’s program has been off to a rocky start, though, particularly due to a high-profile legal battle with Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo. Uber and Waymo are set to go to trial next month in a case where the former is accused of using allegedly stolen trade secrets belonging to the latter. But the announcement last week that Uber intended to purchase 24,000 autonomous Volvos, to be delivered between 2019 and 2021, shows the company’s hellbent on trying to make its own self-driving car ambitions work.

There’s no set date just yet on when the motion sickness-prevention system could end up in Uber’s fleet.


“We haven’t assigned a timeline to when the system will be fully integrated into our fleet,” an Uber spokesperson said, “but it’s fair to say that everything we explore to improve the rider experience is considered with fleet-wide implementation in mind.”

In the event someone does throw up in an autonomous car, I still dig my idea for how to clean up the mess.

Senior Reporter, Jalopnik/Special Projects Desk

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Lars Vargas was hoping 2020 would be quieter

How are autonomous cars different from human-piloted cars in this regard? I’m not prone to motion sickness when a human is driving, regardless of my level of attention to the ride or not. Is an autonomous car that much different?

I don’t necessarily know when a human driver is about to turn or brake, but that doesn’t cause me to unswallow lunch. Unless autonomous cars “feel” very different, I simply don’t see an upswing in Technicolor burps. If anything, they’ll be smoother and prevent (but obviously not eliminate) them.