Uber has an idea to keep you from getting sick when you read in self-driving cars

Key Points
  • Ride-hailing company Uber patented an idea to address passenger nausea when reading in the car.
  • It works with self-driving cars — potentially freeing up passengers to multitask while a computer does the driving.
  • The car would use data from its self-driving "eyes" to create a "sensory stimulation system."
A woman takes and Uber from LAX airport in Los Angeles. Uber is partnering with Amazon to offer Amazon Original Series during Uber rides.
Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

As anyone with a long commute knows, motion sickness can be a major deterrent to reading during a car ride.

Ride-hailing company Uber has an idea to address this frustrating problem, according to a patent application published this month.

And it's not about protecting the upholstery. It works with self-driving cars — potentially freeing up passengers to multitask while a computer does the driving.

According to Molly Nix, user experience design lead at Uber's Advanced Technologies Group, much of the design thinking around cars in the past has been about the power of the driver, rather than the passenger experience. That's something that Uber hopes to be a design leader in, as more and more rides are taken in self-driving cars.

"In general when we think about Uber as a product, the magic is that it gives you your time back," Nix said.

Nix couldn't discuss the specifics of the motion-sickness patent, but here's how it works: The car would use data from its self-driving "eyes" to create a "sensory stimulation system" that syncs up your eyes and ears. That could be done with controllable seats that move and vibrate with the car, bursts of air, or using a display or "light bar" within the car to create visual stimulation such as an augmented reality live stream of the surrounding environment.

Source: Patent filings

It helps because like seasickness, nausea in the car can happen when your eyes sense the environment as still, while your inner ear senses the twists and turns of the car ride, creating a sensory conflict, a professor told Scientific American. For souls with sensitive stomachs, that can mean buses and passenger seats are productivity-sapping reading-free zones.

"With the advent of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, rider attention may be focused on alternative activities, such as work, socializing, reading, writing, task-based activities (e.g., organization, bill payments, online shopping, gameplay), and the like," the patent says.

To be sure, most patents are never commercially produced or even seriously tested internally. But it's one example of a safety precaution, to give passengers to prepare for a sudden braking event or collision, the patent said.

That's important because more Americans are worried about self-driving cars than are enthusiastic, according to a survey published last month by the Pew Research Center. Nix said that as a company that's already focused on passenger experience, Uber is investing more and more resources into how to make riders more comfortable in autonomous vehicles — even with an idea like multi-tasking.

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Nix compares self-driving cars to elevators — which for many years were operated by elevator operators because of the "Tower of Terror"-fear that riders would get trapped or would not be able to control a machine, which was taking them potentially hundreds of feet in the air.

But design features like light-up buttons and arrows, standardized across most elevators, now give riders the needed transparency to understand where the machine is taking them. That's why Uber is working on screens that will show drivers what the car "sees" and allow riders to reroute their ride as they would with a human at the wheel.

Nix said it's important that riders are able to engage or disengage with the screens as much as they'd want to — perhaps less after a night of drinking but more when you want to pull over on a crowded block.

"Often when riders first get in [a self-driving car], they are surprised and about five minutes later they forget and it becomes a boring car ride, it becomes every day," Nix said. "That's our goal, we don't want you to have to think about this stuff. It should just be normal and you can forget about it, check Facebook on your phone ....Something that people can connect to and feel like they know already."

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