Arnon Rolnick


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Autonomous cars: New territory for CBT interventions


Much has been written about use of CBT in various settings and conditions (in the workplace, the classroom, the GP’s office and sports). There is, however, very little data about application of CBT in moving vehicles. There are several studies on using CBT interventions to reduce road stress and anger in drivers. However, as drivers stop controlling their vehicles and become passengers instead, genuine new problems may arise. Autonomous cars are about to become a reality, and it is clear that new problems may emerge and be disturbing for passengers in these cars.

For example, this change may present difficulties related to trust. At least at the beginning, people may be somewhat  apprehensive about being transported by a computer.

However, this presentation will focus on a severe psychophysiological problem that will certainly become a concern for users of autonomous cars, namely Motion Sickness Syndrome (MSS), and the helplessness that accompanies this syndrome.

In our 1991 article, Why is the driver rarely motion sick, we focused on the role of controllability in moving vehicles. Using Seligman’s model, we predicted that psychological problems resembling helplessness may emerge under conditions of uncontrollable motion.

The lack of control and the inability to predict the direction of motion will become major factors that contribute to MSS in autonomous cars. Moreover, passengers will likely use the time to read or watch videos, which is very likely to produce a significant increase in carsickness.


We study MSS in the field (cf. boats and other moving vehicle – see Rolnick 1978), and in the laboratory (cf. simulators like rotating chairs – see Rolnick and Lubow 1991, tilting rooms and Virtual Reality settings – see Rolnick and Bles 1989). We also used animals to study conditioned taste aversion and nausea (Rolnick 1984).


Findings from previous studies demonstrate the importance of behavioral and cognitive processes. For example:

  • Rosenbaum and Rolnick (1984) examined the range of self-control (SC) behaviors and their ability to cope with seasickness. We found that High-SC seasick subjects reported using self-control methods to cope with seasickness more extensively than Low-SC seasick subjects.

  • Other studies published by the Israeli Navy demonstrated the ability to reduce seasickness by verbally enhancing self-efficacy.

  • NASA researchers showed that biofeedback combined with autogenic training was very successful in preventing MSS.

  • In his 2019 book on MSS, Dobie summarized his work in the British and Canadian air force, as well as in the American Navy. He found that CBT is the main approach used to cope with MSS among sailors and pilots.


Carsickness will certainly become a major problem in the upcoming era of autonomous cars. The knowledge we have gained from cognitive behavioral interventions for stress and other disorders will certainly be helpful as more and more people might need help coping with this transient yet severe malaise.


Cognitive and behavioral process will become increasingly relevant as autonomous cars begin to appear on the roads. We will have to sit behind the wheel and drive research on the applicable human factors.

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