Intel Survey: Americans Skeptical, Yet Hopeful, About Smart Cities

Intel thinks it’s only a matter of time before cars, streets, highways, buildings—in short, most parts of the urban infrastructure—get a brain upgrade. And naturally, it expects that Intel chips will be powering much of the new smarts.

But the Santa Clara, CA-based semiconductor giant knows that public fears about sensor networks and large-scale data collection could be a big impediment to this future. So it has embarked on an international campaign to measure and perhaps sway public opinion about the idea of “smart cities” where sensors are everywhere and cars, buses, and trains operate autonomously to optimize overall commute times and energy usage.

Last week Intel released the results of a survey of 12,000 adults from eight countries, asking how urban residents feel about notions like buildings and roads that collect data on people’s movements; driverless vehicles; computerized traffic optimization; and the use of flying drones for traffic control and emergency response. Participants in the “Intel Freeway to the Future” study hailed from Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and the United States.

The results were striking. As far as people outside the U.S. are concerned, these technologies can’t arrive soon enough. In the seven countries outside the U.S., 60 percent of respondents said their cities should invest in more technology collection and sharing if it could “make the way we live better”—especially if it could ease epic traffic problems. Only 38 percent worried that this might involve a reduction in personal privacy.

In the U.S., by contrast, only 49 percent thought citywide data collection is a good idea, and 60 percent saw it as a potential privacy violation.

Overall, Americans seem sharply divided over the benefits of smart city technologies. Only 40 percent support the idea of buildings and surroundings collecting data. Driverless transportation struck 44 percent as a good idea. Automated parking was more popular, at 50 percent. Commuter route optimization was supported by 54 percent, drones by 57 percent, and computerized traffic control for emergency vehicles by 59 percent.

Researchers at Penn Schoen Berland, hired by Intel to conduct the study, got slightly more positive answers when they asked questions that emphasized the attractions of smart city technologies. Asked whether having buildings, buses, and other physical surroundings gather and share information about what people do would be worthwhile if it meant that it cost less money to run their city, 22 percent of Americans agreed (compared to 29 percent in other countries). If the data collection led to energy savings, 21 percent of U.S. respondents said it would be worthwhile. If it helped improve air quality, 16 percent said it would be worthwhile; if it reduced water consumption, 2 percent.

Altogether, 61 percent of Americans cited at least one benefit that might make pervasive data collection palatable. But 38 percent still said that “living in a city described above would never be worthwhile.”

Given the avalanche of revelations about U.S. government spying programs and ongoing concerns about how large companies, from Facebook to Target, handle consumers’ personal data, it’s not surprising that Americans are wary about building vast new data-collecting networks, even in the service of smoother commutes.

With the “Freeway to the Future” survey, Intel hopes to gauge the potential market and to start a conversation now—before such networks are put into widespread use—about what kinds of data should be collected and for what purposes, said Intel futurist Steve Brown in a Q&A last week with Xconomy. Brown carries the title “Chief Evangelist” at the chipmaker.

Intel’s view is that cities shouldn’t link traffic data to individuals, Brown says. “In the same way you have privacy settings on the services you use and the devices in your life, we imagine you would have privacy settings for your car, and every individual will make their own value judgment,” Brown says. “It’s important that we all retain control over our data.”

Still, the survey data show that hardware and software companies looking to smart-city and smart-highway programs as a future market might be better advised to begin rolling out the technologies in urbanized countries outside the United States, where traffic problems are often more acute and citizens may be less averse to monitoring.

“We think about horrible traffic jams in Los Angeles, or fighting for an hour to get out of Manhattan, but that is nothing like what people are dealing with in Jakarta, Indonesia,” Brown said. “So people are more hungry for technology that is going to solve this problem in their lives.”

I interviewed Brown by phone on Feb. 13. Here’s the full transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Why is Intel interested in smart cities and driverless freeways?

Steve Brown: I work with Intel Labs, which has more than 1,000 researchers, and they are all targeting application areas. Developing a chip at Intel from conception to rollout can take up to seven years. So we have to be thinking quite far out about what people will be doing and what they will want to do with technology 10 years from now. That’s one of my jobs, to model what it will feel like to be human 10 or 15 years from now. I use that information to input into Intel’s internal planning process.

There is the future we would like to build, and the future we would like to avoid, and the two are equally important. So we think about three big pieces. The first is understanding the technology and when it will be ready for prime time. Second is thinking about the business and the ecosystem. The technology might be ready for prime time, but the world might not be ready to accept it yet. A good example may be self-driving cars. From the smart people I talk to, it’s technologically possible three to five years from now, but then you have to figure out liability, insurance; the legal system is not quite ready for it. Third and most important is the people side of it: what do people want, and what do they care about, and what are they afraid of? That is how this report came about.

X: Is Intel working with car companies right now to figure out what sorts of chips will be needed in cars?

SB: We are doing that today. We are working closely with car companies and infrastructure companies to design and build the technology that is going to make the world intelligent and connected. But as a futurist, I am looking out 10 years. I don’t really focus much on what we are doing today. Some of the relationships with car companies are public and some are not. Generally, we’re working to help them … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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