Will Autonomous Vehicles Make You Sick?

Hailing originally from the Netherlands, Diels is a senior lecturer on Human Factors in Industrial Design and a motion sickness expert.

As part of our interview series asking researchers and academics from around industry and academia as many ‘dumb questions’ as possible, we wondered if the problem of normal motion sickness for passengers would be made better or worse once computers are in charge.

We found an expert, Dr Cyriel Diels, to give us some insights.  Diels is Academic Director of the National Transport Design Centre at Coventry University and has worked on the causes and mitigation of motion sickness on and off for a decade.

You’ve done a lot of research into passenger comfort in vehicles, how is that going to be a bigger problem in autonomous vehicles?

A major issue, and now finally widely recognised, is the problem of motion sickness. Most people find it rather uncomfortable to read in the car. The reasons for this are incongruent motion cues. Whereas we would feel the movement of the car, what we see with our eyes is stationary which leads to motion sickness.

Ironically, the ability to read, write, or watch movies is postulated as a major benefit of AVs making our journeys more enjoyable and productive. Our research shows that, except for the most resistant individuals, most people experience motion sickness when trying to engage in so-called non-driving related tasks. Understanding how we can prevent this is of great interest.

What other factors affect comfort apart from G-forces?

When we think of comfort as a pleasant state of well-being and physical, physiological and psychological harmony between a person and his or her environment, it becomes apparent that comfort in AVs is far from trivial. The psychological concept of “trust” is widely researched. But there are less obvious ones too.

Automation will render us all passive passengers and is likely to make us more sensitive to our environment. This will increase vehicle requirements in terms of noise, vibration, harshness, and the thermal environment.

Apart from motion sickness, designing interfaces that are actually easy and comfortable to use is still a great design challenge in particular when we think of content creation as opposed to content consumption.

Before joining Coventry you were at Loughborough looking at simulated environments… given many in-vehicle technologies must be tested, even in simulators, with humans in the loop – what measures should be taken to protect test operators?

My research looked into visually induced motion sickness, a topic that 15 years later is more relevant than ever. We have seen astonishing developments in VR which has now become a very convincing and useful technology. Similar to AVs, though, motion sickness is a major limitation and VR experiences (including driving simulations) have to be designed to minimise the occurrence of motion sickness.

In addition to people’s wellbeing, its occurrence may change people’s behaviour in a simulated environment and render it invalid, an important concern when using simulation technologies to evaluate in-vehicle technologies.

New standards are developing all the time in the autonomous eco-system, are there particular areas which are still missing?

My main interest is to understand what it takes for people to adopt more sustainable transport solutions: How do we make green transport acceptable or even desirable?

Design plays a critical role in this and understanding comfort for example is essential in this context. Standardisation is important once we have agreed on a way forward.

However, standardisation runs the risk of stifling innovation and exploration at a time when nobody quite knows where we are heading. For example, standardisation efforts are underway to define how AVs should communicate with other road users, the “external HMI”.

The amount of research and experience in this area is however extremely limited and so we have to be careful not to make premature assumptions and decisions that may backfire.

A lot of people talk about the different levels of automation as being inherently flawed, what are your thoughts?

The different levels simply provide an engineering description from driver assistance to full automation. The inherent flaw is the assumption that the driver / passenger / ‘drivenger’ is able to regain control when automation has reached its limits.

The human factors community has known for decades that people are bad at monitoring and intervening appropriately at intermediate automation levels.

Nevertheless, we see reputable OEMs offering L2/L3 features. I personally believe that morally this is wrong and for that reason I am not involved in researching this “unsafe valley” of automation, a term coined by Frank Flemish, original contributor to the BASt and SAE automation framework.

What autonomous vehicle trials have you been involved with in the past 3 years, and what were you working on as part of those?

One of the most intriguing and insightful projects involved the concept design of a last mile mobility driverless pod. Adopting a people-centred design approach, we explored what factors are important to people when travelling aboard driverless pods.

The subsequent design and evaluation work has been invaluable in getting a better understanding of what future vehicles should be about. In addition, we have conducted several studies into motion sickness in AVs with some revealing and sobering outcomes!

Level Five is a job board first and foremost, so we must dip into your own training and career aspirations – how did your first degree evolve into your career, motion sickness isn’t a glamourous area, so what happened?

In short, coincidence, serendipity, and no interest in glamour! My background is in experimental psychology and cognitive ergonomics looking at the interaction between people and technology. During my internship at TNO as part of my degree at Utrecht University (Netherlands) I was introduced to the opportunity to conduct my research project at Loughborough University.

Following on from this I was invited to stay on and study for a PhD. Motion sickness is an intriguing topic from a human perception point of view and in my subsequent position at TRL (transport research laboratory) I was able to bring my academic knowledge to life using driving simulators for behavioural research.

Motion sickness seems to be following me everywhere I go!

You’ve also worked at Jaguar Land Rover, an employer famous for its commitment to apprentices and employing ex-military engineers as well – what are your thoughts about these same sources being viable for the autonomous vehicle ecosystem?

The JLR apprentice but also the graduate schemes are fantastic ways to learn to understand the industry from different perspectives and provide great opportunities.

AVs and related technologies have a long history in defence so naturally this industry is able to provide valuable insights and experiences to the automotive world.

What advice would you give to someone looking to specialist in your expert area, who should they talk to, emulate, study, read and work for?

Get in touch! Go to events, visit places, and reach out to people to get a better understanding of what their work is all about. Most often the official , published, visible work is only the tip of the iceberg. In general, people are approachable and flattered to hear someone is interested in their work.

There has never been a better and more exciting time to be involved in the transport and automotive sector, opportunities are ample, follow your interests.

A Jaguar outside the 1800m2 NTDC at the centre’s launch event in 2017.

Lastly, plug time! Tell us about what Coventry University offers to help people on their journey into the autonomous vehicle sector

With its longstanding automotive engineering and automotive design courses, Coventry University has been at the heart of the automotive industry for decades with alumni dotted all over the world. With the recently opened Institute for Future Transport and Cities, Coventry University has now the largest transport research institute in the UK.

Within the institute, both the National Transport Design Centre (NTDC) and Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research Centre (CCAAR) offer unique opportunities to help create the future of AVs.


Level Five Jobs is an online portal helping recruiters and recruits find their next match in the complex world of autonomous vehicles, driverless cars and ADAS technologies.With a strong values-based operation, we provide free events listings, free listings for student placements and internships, and support community-orientated projects working on open source projects - all for the benefit of the international autonomous vehicle development community, whether professional, student or hobby enthusiast.