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

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

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


  • 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.

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?

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.World Economic Forum | Centre for the Fourth Industrial R…

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

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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