Spying, glitches spark concern over driverless cars

It looks like Americans aren't yet ready to embrace the future of driverless vehicles.

According to a new study by market research firm Harris Interactive's Harris Poll, nearly 9 in 10 American adults said they would be worried about riding in a driverless car. In contrast, only 12 percent of respondents said they would not worry about letting their cars do the driving.

Nissan Motors' Autonomous Drive Leaf electric vehicle is driven for a demonstration ride at the CEATEC Japan 2013 exhibition in Chiba, Japan, on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

It's the latest in a series of studies that suggest motorists are far from convinced the new technology will be safe and reliable, which could throw a dash of cold water on the industry's race to bring autonomous vehicles to market.

"This research confirms that consumers likely won't hand over the wheel until auto companies can prove equipment is safe from software glitches or failures," cautioned Rick Riccetti, president and CEO at Seapine Software, the firm that engaged Harris to conduct the poll.

The study found that 79 percent of the 2,039 adults who responded feared that the equipment needed by driverless vehicles—such as sensors or braking software—would fail at some point or another, putting them in danger.

Other findings include:

  • 59 percent expressed concerns about liability issues, notably who would be responsible if a driverless car crashed;
  • 52 percent raised concerns about the possibility of a hacker gaining control of the vehicle;
  • More than one-third raised privacy concerns, questioning whether auto companies, insurers, advertisers or the government might try to collect personal data, such as where autonomous vehicles are driven and how fast they drive;
  • Fewer than 1 in 8 of those surveyed said they'd now be comfortable driving in an autonomous vehicle.

The study found that men and women generally agreed about the potential risks. There was no real gap between older drivers, who are generally less comfortable with high technology, and younger, more tech-savvy motorists. While 93 percent of those older than 65 said they'd worry about driving in an autonomous vehicle, so did 84 percent of those ages 18 to 34.

Nissan CEO: Driverless car by 2020
Nissan CEO: Driverless car by 2020

"To meet these challenges, auto companies must implement suitable methods and measures for software development to manage quality and mitigate risk," Riccetti said.

It's not the first time Americans who might be offered the chance to buy driverless vehicles have expressed strong reservations about the technology.

According to a recent survey by, 20 percent of Americans said they would turn in their keys if they had to drive only an autonomous vehicle. The study also found that many motorists would be more willing to consider driverless technology if they were offered insurance discounts.

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On the other hand, a survey by automotive consulting firm Accenture, released last month, found about 90 percent of American motorists are interested in driverless technology—or at least some of the features that are already beginning to show up in today's vehicles. These include automatic braking systems that can stop a car in an emergency, auto-parking systems and lane-keeping technology.

(Read more: US eyeing car-to-car communication)

Nissan has promised to put its first fully autonomous vehicle into production by 2020, and several other makers, including General Motors' Cadillac division, are targeting similarly aggressive goals. Several other manufacturers, including Toyota, have expressed skepticism, however, and are looking only to add more advanced safety features, such as auto-braking, which would continue to leave a human driver in charge of operating the vehicle.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at