Cisco survey: Consumers are getting comfortable with the idea of the driverless car

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(s csco) shows that consumers around the world may be more amenable to the autonomous vehicle than everyone thought.

In a global survey of 1,514 consumers 18 years or older, Cisco found that 57 percent would put their trust in a driverless vehicle. The answers varied 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.

Cisco driverless car survey May 2013

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

Of course, consumer perception of a technology depends largely on how it’s presented to the public. Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk last week made that very point when outlining Tesla’s future autonomous vehicle plans, saying 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.”

But according to Andreas Mai, Cisco director of product management for smart connected vehicles, the survey didn’t sugar coat its question. Its 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?”

connected car logoI’m generally a proponent of connected car technologies and look forward to the day when advanced sensors and ad hoc wireless networking would largely automate my daily commute. But I have to say if presented with that question on Cisco’s survey my answer would “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)

Of course, as with any industry produced survey, you do have approach Cisco’s numbers with some healthy skepticism. Cisco isn’t Ford(s f) or Google(s goog), but it certainly 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. In general, though, Cisco tends to produce very thorough industry reports such as its Visual Networking Index of internet traffic.

Cisco asked some other 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 their insurance premiums or auto repair bills.

Another 64 percent said they would be willing to share even more personal information, such as their height and weight and entertainment preferences, for the creation of a unique driver profiles. In a such a scenario, your car could recognize a specific driver by voice imprint and adjust the steering column and seat position automatically and then immediately 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 like fingerprints or DNA if it could help make their vehicles secure.