Tomorrow’s Self-Driving Cars Will Work Like Today’s Decentralized Web

By Bradley Berman — Lead Editor

In the early days of the web, America Online (AOL) operated as if it could unilaterally own all our Internet experiences. Its proprietary network of writers, curators, and editors published content on a branded, centralized platform that was walled off from the larger Internet. It was an old-school media paradigm destined to fail. In hindsight, the emergence of an infinitely better approach — distributed, decentralized web content and services — was inevitable. Today’s nascent network of autonomous vehicles feels like déjà vu all over again.

“As with computer networks of the past, transportation networks are being formed as isolated silos,” says our CEO, Noam Copel. He pointed to companies like Uber and Lyft that are building closed platforms where only their own autonomous vehicles (AVs) and related apps can be used.

It’s something many of the players in the automotive industry are doing, even by progressive companies like Tesla. The visionary Elon Musk wants Tesla to make, sell, and control every aspect of a future network of electric autonomous vehicles — just as today only Tesla vehicles can charge at its public Superchargers. Tesla owns and operates everything, from its vehicle and battery manufacturing plants to its online stores and eventually its Uber-like app.

But the Internet of Transportation is too big for Tesla, Uber, or any other single entity. Instead, the transportation future will need legions of software developers, hardware makers, and third-party providers actively contributing to a web of self-driving and self-flying vehicles. It will require open transactions between vehicles, providers, and users — just as Internet protocols to transmit, route, and receive data between computers was needed to produce today’s panoply of web offerings.

It’s too early to fully envision this web of autonomous vehicles. Nobody has a crystal-clear picture. Regardless, these are a few of the many — from today’s tenuous vantage point — killer apps that might emerge after a decentralized AV platform is widely adopted.

Fielding Cars: Autonomous vehicles (and drones) will be put into service by countless companies and individuals — maybe even you. A decentralized system means that you can share your self-driving car with peers and thereby earn revenue. Using common protocols without intermediaries, each provider will set its own rate, transact directly with riders, and maintain a relationship with riders via subscriptions. New software will facilitate the creation of pods to share/pool vehicles among co-workers, neighbors, and other affinity groups.

Mapping/Routing: A new breed of mapmakers will produce the routing services needed for self-driving cars. These players will contribute data about confusing signage, potholes, ever-changing weather conditions, and how to handle roundabouts, road construction, or other tricky routes. Contracts will be established on the fly with smart roadways — eventually allowing city planners to replace traffic lights and toll booths with digital systems. Platooning services will be provided. Sensor-controlled parking facilities will give readings on when and where vehicles can be stored during infrequent idle periods.

Fueling: Every vehicle will transmit the state-of-charge of its battery. The availability and capabilities of charging stations will also be shared. At the most efficient time, autonomous electric vehicles will travel to a charging station to refuel. The algorithm for scheduling a charging event will consider when renewable energy is abundant on the grid. During times of peak electricity demand, vehicles with full battery packs will travel to vehicle-to-grid docks to put energy back on the grid.

Trust and Safety: To facilitate adoption, an entire sector of the AV economy will develop apps and services that focus on trust. Every vehicle will record metadata regarding the efficiency and safety of past trips. Monitoring services will sprout up to ensure that kids, the elderly, and disabled passengers have the resources needed for a comfortable ride. Remote tracking will confirm when vehicles arrive at their destination. Personal information will be safely guarded from centralized institutions that are vulnerable to abuse, fraud, and hacking.

Roadside Assistance: When autonomous cars get stranded, notifications will automatically get sent to new assistance services. Passengers will get transferred to backup vehicles to complete trips. Vehicles will be moved out of the way, towed, or if possible, repaired onsite. New entities will emerge, like Cell 411 — a decentralized peer-to-peer service that today sends notifications and turn-by-turn navigation to a network of helpers in the event of an emergency. Frictionless payments will compensate these on-demand services.

Insurance and Road Taxes: Usage-based insurance plans will become ubiquitous. Fares, even small ones, will automatically route a small percentage of the payment to insurance-providers based on the length of the trip, road conditions, and risk factors. After accidents, claims will be processed via the network with little human intervention. A separate fraction of each fare will go to state and local governments taxes to pay for road maintenance — based on actual usage rather than an arbitrary annual vehicle-registration fee.

The Autonomous Vehicle Future Needs You
All these interactions will be securely registered on a blockchain — a secure crowdsourced digital ledger. We’re hard at work on this development at DAV, but we’re not alone in seeing the importance of a decentralized platform.

In another early step, the Toyota Research Institute is working with Berlin-based BigchainDB to use blockchain for AV research — with the goal of sharing one trillion miles’ worth of self-driving data. Self-driving cars will only achieve the great promise of eliminating traffic fatalities when research and real-world data is tracked and shared between all parties in a decentralized system. And with a service like Streamr, a visual blockchain editor, you won’t need to be a programmer to create and sell a new app or service for autonomous vehicles.

Even as today’s drivers let go of the steering wheel and become riders of autonomous vehicles, in a web of decentralized transportation, we will be more in control of where we are going than ever before.

What do you envision? Share your thoughts below or join the conversation on our Telegram Channel.