Meet the Jetsons? People split on driverless cars, drones

Julianne Pepitone

A Tomorrowland-like future would be fine with plenty of Americans, according to a new survey, even as they fret about hackers and cybersleuths sniffing around their personal data.

A new study from tech company Intel shows American opinion is split on whether "smart cities" are indeed a smart idea — but the half who are on board are willing to trade some privacy for a more wired future. Intel, which is working on smart-city technology, surveyed 12,000 respondents in eight countries last summer. The company's report released Tuesday broke out responses for Americans in particular.

"The Jetsons" bop around Orbit City, circa 1962.
Warner Brothers | Getty Images

For some, the dream of the future is an interconnected utopia of self-driving cars that know which parking spaces are empty; the reality of today is that revelations like Edward Snowden's remind us personal data may be leaked or exploited.

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"Smart cities are about making life easier and more serendipitous," Intel "futurist" Steve Brown told NBC News. "But we need to think seriously about what is the future we want, and what is the future we want to avoid?"

A city without a single driver

Perhaps the most iconic example of our automated future is Google's driverless car program, which the company has been testing for the past few years. European automakers including Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are developing their own driverless vehicles.

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In the Intel study, about 44 percent of Americans polled said they would like to live in a driverless city, with cars and public transportation vehicles that operate on their own. And they don't think it's a pipe dream: One in three Americans think they'll see a driverless city within 10 years.

Brown, the Intel futurist, said that timeline is likely "a bit too optimistic." Driverless cars raise issues like liability in the case of an accident — and, he pointed out, "even if those problems were worked out tomorrow, it would still take 10 to 15 years for the existing [automobile] fleet to turn over."

Still, more than half of the American respondents are so excited about a driverless city that they're willing to trade some privacy for the privilege — like sharing anonymized travel data or letting a city put a sensor on their cars.

(Read more: Spying, glitches spark concern over driverless cars)

Most are willing to give up some personal convenience for the greater good, too. More than half would let a driverless program choose the best travel routes for everyone on the road if it could cut everyone's commute time by 30 percent overall –- even if their personal commute time would increase as a result.

Public-service drones

Intel's survey also included questions about drones, but it focused solely on drones related to emergency and public services.

Almost 60 percent of people surveyed said drones "are a smart and sensible way to improve public services" like law enforcement, firefighting and general public-safety monitoring.

Intel didn't ask respondents about other types of drones, like unmanned delivery or military vehicles. On Monday, the United Arab Emirates unveiled two prototypes of delivery drones to be used in government services.

(Read more: Nissan CEO: Driverless car by 2020)

In December Amazon unveiled its own "Prime Air" concept, in which the company would offer 30-minute deliveries via drone-like "octocopters." But that's not yet possible in the U.S., where the Federal Aviation Administration is in the midst of developing new rules to govern drones.

Connected cities ... and privacy concerns

Beyond specific machines like driverless cars and drones, the survey found that Americans were more nervous about a city in which everything collects and shares data.

When Intel asked about "living in a city where buildings, buses and other physical surroundings gather and use anonymous information about what people do," only 40 percent were on board.The other 60 percent expressed privacy concerns, Intel said.

(Read more: Drones to deliver documents, ID cards overseas)

Still, when Intel said sharing that data would help society with issues like energy consumption and air quality, the trend reversed: 61 percent said a smart city would then be worthwhile.

Intel itself is currently testing a sensor-based program in Portland, Ore., in which residents volunteer air-quality data. IBM and MIT's Media Lab are among the many other groups conducting smart-city research and trials.

"We're talking about the world coordinating itself in this grand ballet that saves effort, time and money," said Brown. "It's not science fiction; the technology is finally here."

By Julianne Pepitone, NBC News.