Self-driving doesn’t mean Autonomous
A quick update on the research we are conducting at Slock.it.
Self-driving (or self-flying etc.) vehicles aren’t autonomous by default. Yes, they can drive themselves from A to B, but autonomy doesn’t end at removing operators.
In fact, the savings incurred by operating autonomous vehicles could be negated by the high costs of centrally overseeing a large fleet — with partner channels management as a prime suspect.
Death by Workflow
A good example of why centralized workflows can be costly is found in the refueling/recharging challenge. A database of fuel/electricity suppliers would have to be created by a centralized authority and then regularly updated. Reaching network effects and a critical mass of suppliers would be dependent on how quickly the third party can sign them on. And on its way to the pump, a self-driving vehicle would need to query a database of suppliers, a process heavy on fragile workflow and highly dependent on uptime.
All of these suppliers would, of course, have heterogeneous means of data reconciliation. Anyone who has ever worked in a so-called Service Oriented Architecture will know the hell of having 30 ‘partners’ endlessly bickering over who might be ultimately responsible for part of a workflow failure — and who will foot the bill to fix it (usually, it’s the client).
And that’s just refueling, never mind paying for toll roads, opening gates, paying for parking, etc. All of a sudden, your self-driving vehicle doesn’t seem so autonomous after all.
A Smart Contract alternative
Within an autonomous objects platform, on the other hand, ground or air delivery vehicles could negotiate the cost of refueling/recharging with third party stations, without having the need for the fuel or electricity contracts to have been negotiated in advance.
The vehicles would consistently operate at optimal efficiency, by deciding whether or not it is worth traveling off their scheduled course by an extra 3 kilometers to a station where cheaper refueling can lead to cost savings. That decision is taken onboard the vehicle, by the vehicle, and not on a cloud server. Fleet management becomes genuinely decentralized.
Furthermore, if there was to be a new entrant in the charging station market, or if an existing provider went out of business, the delivery vehicles operations would remain unaffected, as they would select their refueling stations not because of predetermined partnerships, but by evaluating current market conditions by way of smart contracts.
On the service provider side, the permissionless nature of this infrastructure allows any actor to start providing services without having to request approval from a centralized custodian. Compared to proprietary solutions, the standardized, open source nature of this system makes it a breeze to get started with, considerably reducing costs and increasing access to competition.
Ethereum as a Base Layer
This process could take place by creating industry-specific interfaces which when put together form an IoT taxonomy, a task made possible thanks to Ethereum’s contract ABIs. A vehicle would search a purpose-build registry for contracts that match a particular interface, for example searching for functions named ‘buyFuel()’ and having a ‘fuel_cost_per_gallon’, ‘latitude’ and ‘longitude’ parameters.
The Slock.it Universal Sharing Network (USN) provides an interface to an ‘internet of value’ on which any service, not just electricity, can be traded P2P.
Determining which partner to select is done entirely locally in the vehicle. In fact, because the vehicle is always updating its copy of the blockchain, it doesn’t even need to ‘pull’ or make a request for updated conditions either. The blockchain’s state automatically reflects any changes, in the form of smart contract being updated, deployed or retired. All of this takes place free of fragile workflows or human control and guarantees the machines operate at maximum efficiency, around the clock.
We found that to go from ‘self-driving’ to ‘autonomous’, one has to factor in all the actions a vehicle must undertake to become roadworthy, and that includes opening gates, paying toll roads and of course, refueling itself. All these behaviors have one thing in common: payments/micropayments, and the capacity for a machine to hold a wallet and spend from it.
By providing a wallet solution alongside a smart contract layer readily interfaceable with payment tokens, Ethereum is a match made in heaven for this type of project. It ultimately allows us to provide our clients with direct M2M payments solutions, opening the door to not just self-driving vehicles, but truly autonomous ones.
If you’d like to learn more about autonomous objects and the work we do at Slock.it, check out this 10-minute video.
About the Author
Stephan Tual is the Founder and COO of Slock.it.
Previously CCO for the Ethereum project, Stephan has three startups under his belt and brings 20 years of enterprise IT experience to the Slock .it project. Before discovering the Blockchain, Stephan held CTO positions at leading data analytics companies in London with clients including VISA Europe and BP.
His current focus is on the intersection of blockchain technology and embedded hardware, where autonomous agents can transact as part of an optimal “Economy of Things”.