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Impact of driverless cars could broaden with blockchain

by Lauren Horwitz

Managing Editor, Cisco.com

Autonomous cars are the subject of interest and apprehension. But technologies such as blockchain could broaden the impact of driverless cars.

As companies digitize and upend virtually every business process they have established, many face a glaring reality. They must disrupt their own industries or become disrupted themselves.

The auto industry, for example has been challenged by ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft; individual car ownership and transportation is becoming too costly and onerous in congested cities.

“The auto industry is poised for more change in the next five to ten years than it’s seen in the past 50,” said General Motors CEO Mary Barra, CEO at the 2015 Code Conference. Individual car ownership, Barra implicitly articulated, is poised to take a hit.

Other disruptors are swiftly edging in on automakers’ dominion as well. The impact of driverless cars has started to reveal itself, and automakers are spending billions of dollars to invest in this new technology.  Autonomous vehicles pros include convenience and saved time. They might not only drive passengers around, but pick up dinner, find locations or pay tolls on highways. And now companies are pondering how to combine the convenience of driverless cars with blockchain technology, a digital ledger, to create new platforms for cars to drive—and pay for services.

“You press a button and . . . a car shows up,” said Chris Ballinger of the Toyota Research Institute in a podcast on Toyota’s work in autonomous vehicles and blockchain. “All the negotiation of who you are, payment, your reputation, the car’s reputation, the contract—all those are potential applications of what blockchain does so well."

These kinds of capabilities, however turn self-driving cars into agents, conducting transactions. This requires several technologies working in tandem: Internet of Things-connected sensors on vehicles and pervasive connectivity as well as digital exchange models like blockchain, which promise secure, paperless, transparent transactions. Blockchain is a distributed, digital ledger that is designed to handle trusted transactions. It’s well suited to environments where humans need not be the agents dictating the transaction.

“Vehicles need to be able to function and transact on their own, because the people are in transit,” said Jim Gross, head of digital change orchestration at ZF Group, in Friedrichshafen, Germany, at the IBM Think 2018 conference in March.

Pros of autonomous cars with blockchain technology

Gross outlined several ways in which the impact of self-driving cars, married with blockchain technology, could expand the impact and applicability of the technology:

  • Toll payment. States have different systems for receiving tolls. Blockchain could standardize collection and enable driverless cars to proceed through municipal boundaries.
  • Parking. Parking also spawns inconsistent systems and a need for a human to feed a meter or swipe his or her credit card in a machine. Blockchain enables this value exchange without requiring a human to complete those traditional steps.
  • Electric vehicle charging and car sharing models. As electric cars become more prevalent and part of the autonomous car model, they need to be charged. In car-sharing models, electric cars should be able to drive to a charging station and be charged to prevent the driver from having to make additional stops to charge a car before it is passed on to the next driver. In places like Shanghai, a good portion of the 15,000 electric cars on the road are also involved in car-sharing programs.
  • Car rental. Blockchain enables drivers to arrive, pick a car, and drive off the lot without interacting with agents or signing paper documents.
  • Car insurance. Again, this paper-based transaction becomes digital, efficient, and paperless with blockchain.
  • Car buying. This enables a digital, efficient process without a ziggurat of paper.

“The car is part of a transaction,” Gross said. “Today, there are people involved, and paper involved, in those transactions. What we see moving forward is that the people and the paper need to start coming out of those transactions,” he said. “What we’re doing today sets up for true autonomy in the future.”

Autonomous cars and safety: Grounded for now

Autonomous vehicles may benefit from aiding technologies like blockchain, but self-driving cars also have to make strides in terms of safety. In March, a Tesla Inc. sport utility vehicle hit a highway divider, killing a passenger in Mountain View, Calif. Days later, an Uber self-driving car struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Tempe, Ariz. Some states moved to halt autonomous vehicle tests, while investigators in Arizona struggled to understand the cause of the accident.

According to experts, multiple problems are at work in cases like that in Arizona. Sensors may have been at fault, where laser and radar systems should have identified a human being in the road. But the autonomous car was also assisted by a human driver, and attention of the driver seems to have lapsed at a crucial moment.

According to Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles, the footage from the Arizona accident suggested that the driver assistant had relied too much on the autonomous system rather than watching the road attentively.

According to TRI’s Ballinger, driver plus autonomous car—or man plus machine—presents a problem for pervasive, consumer-driven use of autonomous vehicles. While today self-driving cars may require human assistance, pairing humans with them can make for a more dangerous combination at the wheel.

“If I have a car that I think the autonomy is going to have a problem every few miles, then I’m on the edge of my seat, watching very attentively, and I’m ready to take over in a split second,” Ballinger said in the blockchain podcast.

“If I have a car that every 500 miles or every 5,000 miles [I expect to have a problem], then my attention starts to waver,” Ballinger hypothesized. “If my mind isn’t engaged and ready to take over, the time to take over . . . upon a warning that something has gone wrong and it needs to have a human act as a backup gets longer and longer. The full recovery might be as long as 15 seconds.”

Combined with blockchain, the impact of driverless cars may indeed broaden over the long term. But for now, autonomous vehicles require human oversight. And today, the combination of humans and autonomous vehicles brings imperfect results. Over time, the autonomous driving may improve, but if accidents continue, public trust in driverless cars may wear thin before the technology can truly arrive.

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Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”