Driverless cars were the kind of thing that you'd find in sci-fi films and TV series back in the '80s - but in 2018, Knight Rider's KITT and Total Recall's Johnny cab are fast becoming a reality. Google, Uber, GM, Tesla, Ford and even Dyson are already scrambling to become market leaders, as self-driving technology becomes poised to overtake conventional vehicles within the next decade or so.
The significance of autonomous vehicles is nothing short of revolutionary. Ubiquitous adoption will prompt unprecedented social, economic and environmental change, as the flow of goods and people become safer, more organised, and cleaner. The cost of transporting freight will fall, as lorries and cargo ships become increasingly efficient. Independence and freedom of personal travel will be available to people everywhere, and road congestion will become a thing of the past. Even the very nature of our cities and streets will change, as cars transition from being an immovable object 90 per cent of the time and into a resource that is constantly in use.
Of course, there are lots of questions to consider before we reach that point; the road to autonomous vehicles (AVs) isn't necessarily a smooth one; not least from a transactional and commercial perspective.
One of the most burning questions is, at face value, a relatively simple one: how and to whom do you pay? In a world where you're no longer hiring the driver inside the car - you're hiring the car - that doesn't have an easy answer.
For starters, how do you get a quote for a transaction with a car, or with a drone? How exactly do you buy the services of a car that picks you up 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 drones utilise the services of other more specialised drones, 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. General Motors CEO Mary Barra said, "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.
Domino's may already have pizza delivery robots, Amazon may have Prime Air drones, 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.
That doesn't look likely to change any time soon. The incentives 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 where blockchain could come into play.
Blockchain would firstly solve the communication problem at its most basic: the fact that autonomous vehicles have no way of recognising each other. Different entities from different manufacturers need to be able to seek each other out. A common communication protocol powered by blockchain would allow exactly this - enabling vehicles to be able discover each other, as well as service providers, and clients around them.
Using smart contracts, blockchain could also facilitate significantly more complex forms of communication. Multi-party contracts could exist between buyers, sellers, and when needed, between arbitrators, insurers, and others. Intra-mission communication between vehicles could be recorded on the blockchain, allowing trustless collaboration previously unseen between vehicles.
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 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 sent to Company C once the tank is full.
The twist, of course, is that this all of this happens without any human intervention.
What blockchain offers is 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. True, artificial intelligence may have driven the automation revolution so far; but it's blockchain technology that will be the final piece of the puzzle that will make it all work, together.
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