Emerging Technologies

This is what European business leaders think about the future of autonomous machines

Workers pack a box of vaccines to be delivered by a Zipline drone, in Ghana April 22, 2019. Picture taken April 22, 2019. Zipline drones, supported by Gavi and the UPS Foundation, cut the time taken to deliver lifesaving medical supplies from hours to minutes. Gavi/2019/Tony Noel via REUTERS   ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT - RC19DAAD1130

Drones are being used to deliver essential medical supplies in Ghana. Image: Gavi/2019/Tony Noel

Philip Meissner
Professor ESCP Business School, Founder & Director European Center for Digital Competitiveness
Christian Poensgen
Founder & Director, European Center for Digital Competitiveness
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Emerging Technologies

  • A new report surveyed leaders from business and politics about the state of the crucial new 'autonomous machines' market in Europe.
  • Results show that autonomous cars and drones are perceived as part of the critical infrastructure due to the large amount of data gathered and stored.
  • Autonomous machines should therefore be part of the debate around digital sovereignty in Europe to develop a competitive industry.

Autonomous machines, such as self-driving cars and drones, are a key future technology. They are fundamentally different from specialised devices from the field of Industry 4.0, in that they are also used outside of factories and can perform everyday tasks, such as transporting goods and people. Autonomous machines will therefore profoundly change the economy and society in the coming years and decades.

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In fact, they are already revolutionising lives today. Zipline, for example, delivers important medical supplies such as blood and vaccines in Ghana and Rwanda. Waymo has launched its operations of fully self-driving cars in Phoenix, US, and has just announced a new partnership with Daimler on trucks. In addition, hardware producers from Airbus to Kitty Hawk and software companies like Auterion are developing capabilities around autonomous drones. In short: a new global growth market is beginning to emerge.

We wanted to understand the status quo of this important technology in Europe. For this, we performed a survey of key decision makers from business and politics in Germany together with IfD Allensbach, a respected opinion and market research institute. The results have recently been published in the Spotlight Study: Autonomous Machines by the European Center for Digital Competitiveness at ESCP Business School.

Respondents considered the technology crucial for the future of Europe. Of those surveyed, 59% of executives and 65% of political leaders even considered autonomous machines to be part of the critical infrastructure, comparable to power grids for example. This is due to the data being used in these machines. Every autonomous machine is guided by a multitude of sensors, from cameras to radar and lidar, and thus generates a lot of data. Given these crucial data, leaders in our study also highlighted that they favour storing data from autonomous machines in the EU if generated in the EU (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Autonomous machines and data sovereignty
Figure 1: Autonomous machines and data sovereignty Image: European Center for Digital Competitiveness.

We found similar results with regard to hardware. A total of 93% of respondents from politics and 89% of business leaders said that it would be very important or important that autonomous machines, such as self-driving vehicles and self-controlling drones, are also manufactured in Europe.

However, our results, as well as market data, suggest that Europe is still lagging behind other major regions in terms of autonomous machines. Still, unlike many consumer markets like online retailing, search engines or social media, the market for autonomous machines is still in its infancy, and the opportunity exists to create European global champions in this market of tomorrow. So, what lessons can Europe take to move forward?

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Digital sovereignty

The European Commission has highlighted its Green New Deal and Digital Strategy as cornerstones of its efforts towards greater sovereignty. However, our results suggest that such a strategy should also carefully consider which industries and future markets are strategic to the EU’s sovereignty in terms of data and infrastructure. The ability to maintain a critical infrastructure has to be redefined in times of quick technological changes. It is no longer limited to power grids, energy or communications. A debate around the infrastructure of the future is needed – from drones to cars and hyperloops.

But this is not a question that is unique to the EU. Every government should think about the question of how and by whom the massive amounts of data generated by autonomous machines are stored and used.

Competition and international cooperation

But does this essentially mean protectionism? Not necessarily. In the software that drives autonomous vehicles, lessons can be learned from other markets, where it is in fact open source solutions that have driven a wide adaption of technology and created a level playing field for new companies in emerging industries. From Linux to Cloud, many examples exist that have enabled a successful global adoption of open source technologies. Europe should focus on open source systems to enable innovation in autonomous machines. In fact, the largest open source ecosystem for drones, PX4, has been created in Europe.

Such an open source based approach can enable innovative suppliers from small and medium-sized companies to join the market and contribute to the development of individual components. This promotes competition and can create an entire ecosystem of companies in an industry, rather than fostering a winner takes all development for this important market of the future.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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