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Data protection? We need a feasible balance between business and privacy

Interview with Hendrik Albers, Regional Business Manager Central Europe at Starship Technologies

European Business: Starship Technologies offers a solution for the “last mile” by having robots deliver goods the customer has ordered via an App on his mobile device. Which industries do you think will profit most from this technology?

Hendrik Albers: I don’t think it is a particular industry. I think it is the customers themselves who profit most, because the demand for direct same-day delivery is currently very high. Amazon is probably the best model for this and they certainly set the bar for customer expectations very high, but there are also many other examples. Studies from PWC or the Fraunhofer Institute have shown that customers want their deliveries to be traceable in real time and they want to be able to decide when and where their parcels arrive at their preferred destination. This is something that Starship can offer.

“I can definitely understand that some people may be sceptical about new technology and what real benefits it will bring for people in their day to day lives.” Hendrik Albers

European Business: Automation, especially in the transportation sector, often raises the fear of societies running out of jobs for humans to do, since robots may do many of them better, cheaper and more reliably in the near future. Is this a fear that you share – and if so, how can society prepare for such an enormous disruption?

Hendrik Albers: I can definitely understand that some people may be sceptical about new technology and what real benefits it will bring for people in their day to day lives. But I think a very good comparison – especially in Germany – would be the automotive industry. Look at all the pictures of people walking next to cars carrying red flags, when motorized vehicles in their early days could only run at a very slow speed and everybody feared that they might take away the jobs of carriage and horse buggy drivers, the regular transportation services of the time. In the end, things turned out to be very, very different: The automotive industry is now one of the biggest employers in Germany.

I believe this historical situation can be compared to robots: Yes, in the beginning there will be a shift in jobs, but over time the job market will adapt and people will see the benefits, especially in our society which is changing very rapidly and in an environment in which we need to keep up with other countries.

European Business: Data is at the core of many debates about digitalization. While the Anglo-Saxon world seems to take a more relaxed approach, many European countries have very strict data regulations in place. Do you believe that Europe will need to loosen its regulations in order to better compete with innovative companies abroad?

Hendrik Albers: I think the European data protection laws are there for a very good reason and Starship as a European company based in Tallinn fully complies with these regulations. I think we as a society need to be very careful not to over-regulate and instead create a feasible balance which supports innovation on the one hand, while maintaining privacy for consumers on the other. For some companies it can be a very fine line, but Starship has developed very precise routines to ensure this balance is kept.

European Business: You just mentioned the potential problems of over-regulation. Do you believe there is too much regulation in Europe and that it would help innovative companies like Starship to have less regulation in place than we currently have?

Hendrik Albers: It would certainly make our lives a little easier in many ways, but, personally, I am a big supporter of privacy regulation. From a business perspective, we need to be able to still run our business, though, and this is what I meant when I spoke about the need for a feasible balance with both purposes in mind.

European Business: How do you believe the need of an innovative digital company to collect consumer data and the customers’ right to privacy can be reconciled?

Hendrik Albers: Most companies which collect customer data do so in order to benefit the customer. Let’s look at deliveries: You need to know where the customer is, when they want their order to be delivered, you need to know several personal details without which you cannot deliver their items efficiently. If the regulations prohibit the collection of one of these essential parameters, the customer would not be able to receive his parcels. Still, the customer can always opt out. I think the ability to opt out of certain things is at the core of data protection. But then, you might not be able to benefit from the future of transportation.

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“Most companies which collect customer data do so in order to benefit the customer.” Hendrik Albers

European Business: Starship’s founder, Ahti Heinla, is from Estonia, where the engineering headquarters of Starship Technologies are located. Estonia has been making headlines as a world leader in digital transformation with many innovative ideas such as e-Citizenship. What can other countries learn from the Estonian digital model, especially larger European economies such as Germany and France?

Hendrik Albers: I am a very big fan of the e-Citizenship system in Estonia which makes citizens’ lives a lot easier. Just one example: In Estonia, you register once at an official agency and all the other agencies then have access to your data. On Tuesday, I was at a dinner with Jüri Ratas, the Estonian Prime Minister, and he raised the concrete example of how Estonia plans to handle Elterngeld, a tax-financed compensation for parents: When a child is born, the parents must register its birth with the authorities, because it is a new citizen. But why do parents in so many countries have to go through a lengthy process to obtain something they are entitled to anyway? In Estonia, the e-Citizenship model will automatically register that you have a new child and send the money directly to your account without the hassle of any further application process. I think that makes life much easier for Estonia’s citizens.

Of course, it is not as easy for a country with more than eighty million people to conduct such a system as opposed to a country with a population of less than one and a half million. I fully appreciate this. But I think that at the heart of e-Citizenship lies a fundamental trust in technology.

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“I think that at the heart of e-Citizenship lies a fundamental trust in technology.” Hendrik Albers

European Business: Are there any specific regulatory hurdles Starship has to cope with in Europe that it did not need to deal with in the United States?

Hendrik Albers: Yes, and the main challenge we face in Europe – not in all countries, but in Germany at the moment – is the recognition, or lack thereof, in traffic regulations of robots as participants in public transportation. We have already received permits to drive autonomously in several states in the U.S. In Germany, we are aiming for a national ordinance which would recognize the robot as a participant in public traffic. This is very important for everyone – not only for Starship, but also for all other traffic participants. Once the robot is recognized, it would have its rules, its obligations and there would be much greater legal certainty. It would be very clear what the robot could and could not do and it would be very clear who would be at fault if an accident were to occur. This is important for jurisdiction, for insurance and for the interaction with all the other participants in public traffic.

European Business: Where do you think Starship should be in Europe in five years?

Hendrik Albers: Definitely the market leader in autonomous delivery. I think Starship will be the first option a customer calls when they want to have a quick, on-demand and cheap delivery. We operate safely and we operate quietly. We don’t cause air congestion and because we operate on batteries, we don’t cause the nuisance of noise pollution like big delivery trucks, and we don’t break the rules by parking in the second row.

European Business: What measures will Starship take to quickly permeate European markets?

Hendrik Albers: We work very closely with national governments to improve regulations for robotic deliveries. Behind us lie more than 130.000 km on public roads. We have met more than 15 million people. We have a very broad sense of our capabilities. And we want to continue to promote our services in a very honest way as a reliable partner for local businesses.

Interview: Julian Miller

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