With autonomous vehicles already in the late stages of testing, the industry is already considering how they may be booked and paid for. The process for hiring autonomous vehicles needs to be as smooth as possible. If customers cannot quickly access vehicles then the whole system will fail to attract the hoped-for level of use. If the system is complex or simply doesn’t suit the needs of people, they won’t use it.
Making payments, gaining access
This is a whole new area for the car industry and the only area of transport sharing similarities are the growing ranks of urban bicycles that are gracing an increasing number of cities worldwide.
However, the car industry has viewed these transactions as slow and inappropriate for use on cars. Speed of access and security of data are key to the transactions and these appear to be lacking with the bicycle model.
The current model relies on the vehicle being collected from a designated station and returned to a docking area when the customer has finished using it, with payment carried out via a bank card. Autonomous cars won’t work on that basis – people will want to collect and leave them anywhere that is convenient to them.
Furthermore, despite security protocols, bank cards are susceptible to fraud, including unauthorised use and cloning. As the potential market for autonomous cars grows, there needs to be a secure way of booking and paying, and that is where understanding how blockchain technology works comes in.
Blockchain as a credible alternative
Blockchain is, simply put, a database of transactions that create a continuously growing list of records - ‘blocks’ - which are linked and secured using cryptographical elements. Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. By this design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of the data and is therefore completely secure to use.
In the United States, the use of blockchain technology is being pushed by Toyota, using the Gig app. This means that the whole transaction (from payment to actually unlocking and then relocking the car at the end of use) is controlled under one, unbreakable system, drive via a simple phone app.
The Gig system currently uses Toyota Prius models and shows you where the nearest available car is. Then it accepts payment and unlocks the car within a matter of seconds, allowing the user to drive to their destination and leave the car with the journey fully paid for. While still in its early stages, the system seems to be working well with no reports of any problems.
Blocking out the fraudsters
In 2017, software giant IBM announced that they were developing the car eWallet, which would allow secure payment for connected cars, and that could be a gateway for all manner of cyber security features on complex systems such as cars.
Furthermore, vehicle manufacturer Daimler has completed a test in collaboration with Landesbank Baden-Württemberg to establish the use of a blockchain system to automate the entire vehicle transaction cycle.
Meanwhile, Porsche are actively investigating the use of blockchain in a number of vehicle applications, including the secure transfer of information to and from the car to a central collection point. Together with Berlin-based Xain, Porsche are assessing whether blockchain can be used to both monitor many aspects of the car, from its real-time location to engine and safety functions.
Japanese giant Toyota have recently teamed up with MIT in America to investigate the development of blockchain as a means of transfer of information over global distances, without fear of interception or corruption from outside agencies. By using peer-to-peer communication, the security of data being sent from the car, or payment and position information being sent to it are totally secure.
Developments such as this will revolutionise the instant hire and access of autonomous vehicles since it offers a quick, cheap and secure method of obtaining it for the duration of the journey. This is essential for the system to work and be accepted by customers, car manufacturers, financial institutions and insurance providers alike.
Blockchain simplifies data
But the encryption element of blockchain makes it ideal for anything that requires the secure exchange of data. Therefore, the technology could also be used to remotely track a vehicle’s performance, location, or emissions.
In real-world scenarios, an insurance company could install flexible insurance payments based on a customer’s actual driving patterns as recorded in the vehicle and transmitted to the blockchain. Encryption means that there can be a reliable exchange of real-time data between the car and a central database that may be accessible by interested parties.
If payments and access to autonomous vehicles can be made with as little effort as climbing into our own cars, and driving wherever we want to, then people are far more likely to be accepting of the notion. Blockchain technology potentially offers that freedom.