"The federal government has decided to draw up a new government program for the information society in Germany by this summer. The further expansion of our digital infrastructure will be a priority."
Those two sentences are from a speech Chancellor Angela Merkel gave at the CEBIT information technology trade fair – in 2006. Much of what she said in that speech still applies today: Digital change is continually creating new challenges, and we still have a lot of unfinished homework to do with Germany's digital infrastructure.
This need is supported by the latest ICT Development Index, a study that ranks countries according to a set of information and telecommunications technologies indicators. This year, Iceland ousted South Korea from the top spot. Switzerland came in third place, with Germany in eleventh, one up from its ranking in 2016. In detail, however, the ranking revealed a clear need to catch up in terms of connectivity, especially when it comes to the fast and uninterrupted transmission of large amounts of data.
This is precisely why all of Germany's political parties promised to expand broadband networks in their election platforms. Networks are key to greater efficiency and effectiveness in business and society, and to German industry's competitiveness.
Germany's future viability depends primarily on strong connectivity.
Take mobility, for example. Cars already possess all five senses, so to speak. Equipped with sensors and cameras, they can see vehicles from all sides and warn against dangerous lane changes. They can hear a crash and trigger the appropriate airbags depending on the noise and impact on the car body. Thanks to the yaw-rate sensor, a gyroscopic device that measures angular velocity, they can sense the risk of skidding and activate the electronic stability control system. They also use sensors to taste gasoline mixtures and smell their own exhaust values in the catalytic converter, and they can read information out loud or communicate with other vehicles or transport infrastructure. Today, intelligent, internet-connected vehicles area already making a significant contribution to avoiding traffic jams and unnecessary searches for parking spots.
Such smart connectivity can result in safer, more efficient mobility, which includes optimized traffic flows in urban areas, which helps reduce emissions. Connected vehicles can "look around the corner" and warn each other of dangers in almost real time to prevent accidents. The idea of "vision zero," calling for zero road deaths and zero traffic accidents, is no longer utopian.
The two magic words for modern mobility are: intelligent and quick-response. However, such mobility requires the widespread availability of high-performance 5G mobile networks and vehicles digitally connected to transport infrastructure. There is still an enormous shortage of both.
Intelligent mobility is a vivid example of the application of digital infrastructure. Of course, municipalities are currently thrilled about the billions of euros in diesel subsidies to buy new electric buses. But Germany's future viability and quality of life in urban areas will not depend on the number of electric buses deployed in cities but on how strongly vehicles in general are connected digitally.
So it makes sense for the public and private sectors to collaborate on building “smart cities.” There is a real need for such cooperation. Many major cities are on the verge of gridlock, explaining why city officials are willing to talk about the kinds of solutions we at Continental already offer today. This openness is necessary, because we are talking about preservation, from open interfaces for existing traffic lights to new intelligent traffic lights that react to any given traffic situation.
Clearly, such connectivity requires international rules, not least for the safe and secure handling of vehicle data. The German Association of the Automotive Industry has proposed such a set of rules. They are essential to automated driving in Germany to give consumers the confidence they need in modern mobility services and systems. In the United States, the necessary legal basis is currently being established with the Self Drive Act.
This is why a German government program for the coming years must do both for the information society: advance the expansion of the digital infrastructure and lay down binding, practical laws so that modern mobility concepts such as automated driving can be further developed. I would be very pleased to hear someone say no later than CEBIT 2021: "The digital infrastructure in this country is in the top three of the world."
A longer version of this op-ed appeared in Handelsblatt's sister publication, business weekly Wirtschafts Woche. To contact the author: [email protected]