Consumers Tell Cisco They're Comfortable With the Driverless Car

A Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of in Washington. Photograph by Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images

The auto industry has long said that one of the biggest obstacles to commercializing the self-driving vehicle is consumer mindset: Not everyone is comfortable handing the wheel to the in-dash computer while hurtling down the highway. But a new study by Cisco Systems shows that consumers around the world may be more amenable to the autonomous vehicle than has been thought.

In a global survey of 1,514 consumers aged 18 or older, Cisco found that 57 percent would put their trust in a driverless vehicle. The answers vary wildly depending on country, with 95 percent of Brazilians embracing the concept of a silicon chauffeur. In Japan, skepticism is still very high, with only 28 percent willing to give up direct control of their cars.

In the U.S., where many of these autonomous vehicle technologies are being tested, acceptance is above the global average, at 60 percent. What’s more, the Americans surveyed weren’t a bunch of wild risk-takers: Some 48 percent said they would trust a driverless car to ferry around their children. In general, western Europe is less accepting of vehicle autonomy than North America is, and such rapidly developing regions of the world as India and China are more enthusiastic.

Consumer perception of a technology depends largely on how it’s presented. Tesla founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk made that very point last week, when he outlined Tesla’s future autonomous vehicle plans. Musk said he didn’t like the connotations of the term “driverless car” because it implies a complete ceding of control. Musk’s term of choice is “autopilot.”

According to Andreas Mai, Cisco’s director of product management for smart connected vehicles, the survey didn’t sugarcoat its question. The exact text: “Imagine a car on the road that is controlled entirely by technology and requires no human driver (i.e. Johnny Cab from Total Recall). How likely would you be to ride in such a car?”

I’m generally a proponent of connected car technologies and look forward to the day when advanced sensors and ad hoc wireless networking largely automate my daily commute. But I have to say that if presented with that question on Cisco’s survey, my answer would be “no.” I would be willing to give my car autonomy in many situations, but the idea of being reduced entirely to passenger status doesn’t sit well with me. If Cisco’s survey is truly representative of the public’s current mindset, then we’re a lot closer to creating a driverless highway network than I ever imagined. (For information on the connected car, see GigaOM’s infographic.)

As with any industry-produced survey, approach Cisco’s numbers with healthy skepticism. Cisco isn’t Ford or Google, but it has some skin in this game. It produces the security software and router hardware that would be used to deliver connected and autonomous car services. Still, Cisco tends to produce very thorough industry reports, such as its Visual Networking Index of Internet traffic.

The company asked interesting questions in its survey. For instance, it found that consumers are eager to connect their vehicles to the Internet of things if they can get tangible benefits. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they would allow remote monitoring of their driving habits if it produced savings on insurance premiums or auto repair bills.

A further 64 percent said they would be willing to share personal information such as height, weight, and entertainment preferences to create unique driver profiles. A car could then recognize a specific driver by voice imprint, automatically adjust the steering column and seat position, and tune the entertainment system to favorite presets. A surprising 60 percent said they would even provide their automaker or a third-party company with sensitive biometric information such as fingerprints or DNA, if it could help make their vehicles secure.

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