Why Blockchain Is the Key to Self-Driving Vehicles

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The article is penned by Tal Ater, CTO, DAV.

It was the rise of the automobile that revolutionised civilisation. It transformed where we could live, what we could buy, and how we worked. Commercial production shifted the state of the economy, generating new industries, new infrastructure, new employment, and new methods for dispersing goods.

Society is now on the verge of another similar transformative movement in transport: this being a move away from vehicles driven by humans, to autonomous vehicles, driven by software and sensors. As with the invention and inevitable rise of automobiles, it’s going to have a revolutionary impact.

While self-driving vehicles offer us a promising future – one that is safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly – there are lots of questions to consider before we reach that point; the road to such a future may be a bumpy ride, and not least from a transactional and commercial perspective.

For one thing, if you are hiring a self-driving car, you’re not hiring the driver – you are actually hiring the car. So how do you pay for transport? This is not an easy question to answer.

How do you get a quote for a transaction with a car, or with a drone? How do you buy the services of a car that collects you and drops you off, all by itself? How do vehicles compete for your business? With humans partially removed from the equation, suddenly you’re not paying for labour; you’re paying to hire and make use of an asset.

Things become even more complex if we take autonomous vehicles to their logical conclusion. Imagine a world where transportation systems are almost entirely automated – where autonomous vehicles utilise the services of other more specialised vehicles, or where self-driving lorries and trucks communicate with drones to complete deliveries. How do autonomous vehicles function in an entirely self-sufficient ecosystem – that is, one in which autonomous vehicles almost exclusively make use of other autonomous vehicles?

The answer, for the most part, lies in successful communication. As General Motors CEO Mary Barra explains, “The key with autonomous is the whole ecosystem. One of the keys to having truly fully autonomous is vehicles talking to each other.”

The problem is, as things currently stand, there is no infrastructure in place for such a system.

Amazon may have Prime Air drones, Domino’s may already have pizza delivery robots and Waymo may be trialling autonomous taxis, but currently, there isn’t any connective tissue linking them. All these companies are building their solutions using the same closed platform model. And while autonomous drone and robotics companies are emerging, their networks are equally proprietary, closed and non-inclusive.

The problem is that incentives to cooperate simply don’t exist. Large corporations with stakes in autonomous vehicles will naturally focus on dominating their own markets, rather than investing in tech that enables communication with competitors. Needless to say, that’s a recipe for significant inefficiencies down the line.

Here’s how blockchain can be the key and DAV is playing a leading role in introducing a platform to the market.

First and foremost, blockchain could solve the communication problem at its most basic – the fact that autonomous vehicles have no way of recognising other autonomous vehicles. Different entities from different manufacturers need to be able to seek each other out, and a common communication protocol powered by blockchain would allow exactly this – enabling vehicles to discover each other, as well as service providers, and clients around them.

By using smart contracts, essentially, digital contracts, blockchain could also facilitate significantly more complex forms of communication. Multi-party contracts could exist between buyers, sellers, and when needed, between insurers and others. Intra-mission communication between vehicles could be recorded on the blockchain, allowing trustless collaboration between vehicles that would otherwise be incompatible.

Take this scenario, for example. A truck from Company A unloads with the assistance of drones from Company B. The two parties sign a contract which is immediately followed by a release of funds from the Company A to Company B, once the contract is satisfied. Company A’s truck then refuels at a gas station of Company C. Again, funds are spontaneously exchanged to Company C once the tank is full. The twist, of course, is that this all of this happens without any human intervention.

Blockchain offers something that no other technology can: a truly connected world where any autonomous vehicle could operate in any environment, consuming services around it as the need arises. Artificial intelligence may have driven the automation revolution so far, but it’s DAV’s decentralized, peer to peer, global transportation network that will be the ignition that will make it all work, together.